When God called to our ancestors in the biblical texts, the most famous response, the one most sharply expressed is “hineni.” “I am here,” a stark simple overpowering statement of preparedness. The call from one’s creator is never expected, yet cannot be denied, to hear it must be an immense challenge, a consuming transcendent experience. How can a finite human being respond in the moment to such a commanding voice? In fact, how can anyone prepare for it?
I have heard sermons, legends and interpretive tropes explaining some of these texts, the active moments and biblical reactions. But I am still mystified. It requires a leap of the imagination to place oneself in such a situation and imagine a personal reaction.
In our tradition the variables of textual narratives are compounded by the contexts and subtexts. Not all the hineni’s come to teach us the same life lessons. Parsing text and tradition call for multiple levels of learning and experience.
The first encounter with this expression is the Abraham storyline (Exodus 3:4). God calls to Abraham who simply responds, “Here I am.” Before we grasp the development of this narrative, I would note the absence of this combination in the Garden of Eden. God asks, “Where are you?” But Adam cannot answer hineni. He is not accessible in the mode of one who is fully present before God. On the other hand, Abraham is ready, prepared to do anything. Later, when Isaac calls to Abraham on their trip, he can again say hineni – “I am here for you.” Each time the phrase is used it resonates with slightly different meanings, but Abraham’s usage is direct and wholehearted. And then finally, when God’s messenger calls out to Abraham to halt, the responding hineni is thoroughgoing.
Moses, too, has his call of the determined moment (Exodus 22:11). He is summoned, via a burning bush, and must respond despite the oddities of the sight. Some have inferred the experiences, or the tests, as expressions of affection or prompts to zealous action. Others use these texts to substantiate the exceptionality of the protagonists. They are righteous men, called forth by their creator and they confront the occasion with courage and faith.
At each usage, variations filter through. One midrash sees Abraham’s first hineni as a sign of his meekness and piety. Certainly, the placement of this text as the main reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah evidences Judaism’s hallowing of this specific performance or treatment of the expression. We are to express piety and humility on this holy day. We are to know how to be in the present and to present ourselves before our Creator: “Here I am! I am ready to listen, to perform as you command me.”
Hineni can be a powerful response to our fragmented, malfunctioning and sick world. If we could really mean it, we might begin to repair and restore it.
But I believe there is another side to hineni, one not seen in these biblical tales but one not any less significant or sacred.
When I say, “I am here,” I acknowledge that I exist. There is an “I” in the world and that “I” counts for something somewhere. In the biblical sense, I resonate with the concept that I am created in God’s image, and that means I am significant. Each person is God-like, God-imbued, worthy of living, and existentially worthwhile. Each one deserves to be present in their life; able to stand up and say, “I am here.” Erica Brown paraphrased the biblical hineni as, “I am fully present; I am fully present in my life.”
We need to recall this in the battle against feelings of insignificance, against teen suicide, against those who find their lives meaningless. I, you, me, them: we are all here. It is urgent that we learn to appreciate human life – each individual. I am not trying to plead the case for some vague general concept of humanity as valuable, but rather the individual person who is distinctly present and precious.
That is our call today.
Can you respond hineni?