And here's my sermon for yesterday morning!
So I’d like to ask a question. Truth be told I’ve been meaning to ask it for a while, but I’ve been a little intimidated. Some of you will find the question silly, and others yet may find the question offensive. Please understand that I’m truly, honestly asking the question not to be judgmental or cute or smart, but because it’s important.
Why are you here?
Seriously, why are you here?
I know for some, it’s ‘tradition’; the question doesn’t even arise because the answer is self-evident. What else do Jews do, after all? For others, it’s about family; the chance to be together once or twice a year. Some of you are here for memory: you’re not really ‘here’ per se, but are hearing the sounds and feeling the feelings of your childhood. Then there are those who want to connect spiritually: you want to do the hard work of cheshbon nefesh the accounting of the soul. Yet others are here for the music, a few might be here for the sermon, and at least one person is here because the clergy look really good in white.
And then I’m guessing that there are many of you who truly do not know why you’re here. You come every year—or perhaps this is the first year in a long time—looking for something, hoping for something, expecting, well, you’re not sure what. Connection? Inspiration? Meaning? Something other than confusion and tedium, which you encounter all too frequently as you stumble over unfamiliar prayers (not just the Hebrew ones, but wacky over-formal English as well), as you try to join in music that doesn’t quite sound like what you remember from childhood, as you sit surrounded by people who all seem to know each other, but not you. You could come up with a thousand reasons to be anywhere else, but you chose to be here. And so you sit, waiting more-or-less patiently, for something to happen, some trigger to go off, some ‘a-ha’ moment, waiting for your Abraham moment.
What do I mean? For that we have to look at today’s Torah portion, the binding of Isaac. We tend to focus on the act itself, gruesome and awful as it is, a father nearly sacrificing his son to the voices in his head. Or we focus on the Ram at the end of the story, the justification for the Shofar blast we’ll hear momentarily. But there is something else happening in the story as well. When God calls to Abraham he uses the same words as when Abraham first heard the divine voice: Hineini, here I am. When his son looks at him plaintively and calls out to his father (for comfort? For inspiration?) he uses those words again: hineini, here I am. When the angel cries out to stop Abraham’s hand as the knife is about to plunge, again Abraham says Hineini, here I am. Three times in this portion Abraham says “Hineini”. It’s a simple statement, yet one filled with meaning. The Torah doesn’t give us tone of voice or a sense of emotion—it’s all action verbs and nouns—but we can well imagine how that word, “hineini” is said in each moment along this terrible and awesome journey.
Now please don’t misunderstand—I’m not suggesting we’re waiting for a voice in our heads that tells us to kill our children. This is Rosh Hashanah, not “The Shining”. However, I think there’s something emulative about coming to a place unfamiliar and declaring ‘here I am’. There is expectation and readiness, to be sure, but there’s also openness to what comes next, the willingness to be challenged, to be taken seriously. The text says God was testing Abraham, and we assume the test was the binding and near-sacrifice of his son. But what if the test was really whether or not Abraham would listen at all? What if Abraham passed the test just by saying ‘hineini’, here I am?
Of course, the high holidays aren’t the only ‘hineini’ moments in our lives. In fact, I would argue that our days are filled with hineini moments, that potentially every moment of every day is a hineini moment. When we acknowledge someone in need and respond in kind, when we engage in love and compassion for the other, when we have that moment of connection with someone else, when we read sacred text, sing and celebrate with gusto, we are saying “Hineini, here I am. When we speak these words, we are seeking not mere survival, but nourishment for the soul, connectedness, meaning. We remember the words of Herman Hesse in Siddhartha:
When someone is searching," said Siddhartha, "then it might easily happen that the only thing his eyes still see is that what he searches for, that he is unable to find anything, to let anything enter his mind, because he always thinks of nothing but the object of his search, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed by the goal. Searching means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal. .. striving for your goal, there are many things you don't see, which are directly in front of your eyes."Too frequently, however, we don’t say ‘hineini’, we don’t pass the test. We don’t listen hard enough, we don’t reach out enough. We judge, we engage in snark, we find others wanting. We keep up our armor lest our vulnerabilities be exposed. We engage in a world where everyone is trying to score points and interaction is a zero-sum game, where openness is weakness. We see it in our political discourse, we see it in our personal interactions. There has to be a winner and a loser, and none of us wants to be the loser. In this environment, who can take chances? Who can build real trust, who can learn or grow? Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not speaking of walking on eggshells, afraid to insult the other. That is mere political correctness, a game of ‘gotcha’ where we never reach real dialogue because we’re too busy trying to figure out the right words. That too is a kind of armor. I’m speaking of the constant search for criticism that we find on the radio and the internet, the devaluation of the self we see in magazines that are meant to inspire ‘beauty’, the kind of meaningless point-counterpoint we saw in the internet debate on CNN a few weeks ago, between teachers and parents, arguing that one is right and the other wrong, that parents always distrust teachers and make their jobs more difficult, or that parents need to look out for predatory educators more interested in assumptions than learning. Are those really our only two options? Is it impossible for teachers and parents to hear each other, ask questions of each other, challenge each other meaningfully and respect one another’s positions? Is it impossible for us to stand before someone and say: “Here I am, open to the possibilities that our encounter can lead us someplace better”?
So let me make a suggestion for all of us, even the ones who already ‘know’ why they’re here. Let’s learn to say ‘hineini’. Let’s learn to be open, to be vulnerable, and to create space for others to do so as well. Easier said than done, I know, and we can come up with all kinds of reasons to keep those defenses up, to go on living life the way we always have, but if that were true, you wouldn’t be here today, would you? You wouldn’t be sitting in this place, waiting. You’re not at yoga, you’re not at the gym, or work, or your favorite restaurant, or at home; you’re here. Be here more: not only in this physical space (though that’s good too), but in this state of being, open to what is before you.
We end with a prayer, a poem written by Rabbi RachelBarenblat, a prayer for a service leader, but one that I think applies to all of us.
Here I stand painfully aware of my flaws quaking in my…shoes and in my heart.I'm here on behalf of this kahal even though the part of me that's quick to knock myself says I'm not worthy to lead them.All creation was nurtured in Your compassionate womb! God of our ancestors, help me as I call upon your mercy.Don't blame this community for the places where I miss the mark in my actions or my heart in my thoughts or in our davening.Each of us is responsible for her own teshuvah. Help us remember that without recriminations.Accept my prayer as though I were exactly the leader this community needs in this moment, as though my voice never faltered.Free me from my own baggage that might get in the way. See us through the rose-colored glasses of Your mercy.Transform our suffering into gladness. Dear One, may my prayer reach You wherever You are for Your name’s sake.All praise is due to You, Dear One Who hears the prayers of our hearts. May this day open us to all the moments when we may say Hineini, “Here I am”, and may we be so transformed and moved to hear others and ourselves, to hear the Voice even as we hear the sound of the Shofar. Amen.