He gazed, and there was a bush aflame, and yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, ‘I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?’ When God saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: ‘Moses! Moses!’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Hineni’.
- Exodus 3:2-4
On a cold winter Sunday, I sat in my parents’ living room, cozy and curled up with my wife and our six-month-old son. By noon, I was in a hospital room, serving as chaplain for a friend from summer camp who asked me to be with her and her family as her father lay dying. I remember texting her when I arrived at the hospital, “I’m here”. What at first seemed like a simple text to let her know I had entered the building, in fact carried with it my declaration that I was prepared to enter the moment, and to serve whatever needs she had. Hineni.
Declaring Hineni carries with it a world of significance. Throughout Torah, the word Hineni conveys a spectrum of different meanings, all focusing around the idea of being present.
Hineni can mean “I’m here for you”, while serving in a moment of pastoral care.
Hineni can display a readiness to act, regardless of the task at hand.
Hineni can mean “this is who I am”, in a moment of self-reflection.
Different scenarios will demand different actions, but the principled response is the same. As a rabbi, I see it as my duty to answer calls with Hineni, from wherever they may originate.
Hineni is importantly not just about the “I am”, but also the “here”, the situational environment which surrounds the moment. Only after Moses displayed his awareness of the burning bush, and his desire to understand the details of the moment, did God call out to him. My social work background profoundly impacts my belief in the importance of environmental factors and human connection. A life dedicated to answering Hineni mandates attention to individual moments and their surroundings. Being present does not mean blocking out the rest of the world in an attempt to focus, but rather acknowledging how details and circumstances interact and come together to create the full picture.
Last year I learned this lesson while serving as the rabbi for a very small, rural congregation in what was once a bustling Jewish community. The entirety of the religious school consisted of three children from two families. It quickly became clear that both participating families were commuting from 40 minutes away to get to the synagogue – so I offered to turn our sessions into home visits. The mother of one of the students offered to host, I suspect in part to lighten her own burdens. She had two children with unique sets of learning challenges, and her husband had been in and out of the hospital battling depression and other mental illness. Assessing the situation, I realized that my role in those sessions needed to change. My role was not to solely focus on purveying deep understanding of text and tradition. Rather, it was to bring a calm presence into a tumultuous home and offer ease and positivity in whatever way I could. This was the Torah I brought to these families, this was living my Jewish values. Hineini – this is who I am, this is what I can do, I am here for you.
These moments of committed presence are not generated out of nothing. The ability to live by these actions is built up over time. Like a muscle, they are exercised and practiced so that in the times of need, we are able to answer the call. Ordinary presence practiced routinely creates an extraordinary identity. I commit myself daily to practicing presence through mindfulness, study, and human interaction. I believe dedication in these categories is essential to cultivating a Hineini mindset, and I believe this dedication can be modeled and taught.
As a rabbi, I will aim to take the Hineni mindset which I so value and build from it a communal mentality of Hinenu, here we are.
Here we are, visiting the homebound of our community.
Here we are, immersed in prayer and study, grounding our identity in mindfulness.
Here we are, standing alongside our neighboring houses of faith in their moment of need.
Here we are, eyes open and quickly mobilized, because we live our values daily.
I think that we can and must find ways to invite Judaism to speak to the everyday lives of the individuals in our communities.
This past High Holy Day season, my laptop was my bimah. Through my work with the 92nd Street Y, I had the awesome opportunity to serve an online community of thousands, tuning in for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur from around the country, and around the world. Our amazing community was comprised of individuals and families who for whatever reason could not make it physically to a synagogue. Over the course of the holidays I interacted with members of the military, people recovering from and awaiting surgery, and families with children with autism who are uncomfortable in a large overstimulating setting. Many of our participants shared that they were otherwise alone during this holiest season. Many revealed their sadness and that their personal struggles were compounded by their isolation. I repeatedly replied, “we are here for you”. By the end of our Yizkor service, the individuals unquestionably formed a community. People empathized with the pain of others, offered words of encouragement, and bared their souls freely in a revolutionary environment that would have been unthinkable less than a generation ago. Hinenu, here we are on the cutting edge of technology, strongly rooted in the communal values that have carried us here through the gauntlet of history.
Judaism is built through a chain of tradition. Every generation sits in conversation with those who came before, as well as with the generations of the future. There are few things that I embrace more than being a part of something infinitely bigger than myself, while at the same time feeling personally obligated to move the grand cause forward. Our ancient narratives still speak to our core identities today and I thrive in an environment which gathers the wisdom of the past to help build the vision of the future. While we often think of our chain of tradition as linear (I learn from my parents and teach my children), I believe our world calls on us to shift our paradigm, and to cultivate intergenerational learning in both directions. There is great wisdom to be gathered across all dimensions of our communities, and I believe that treating everyone as a valued teacher will enhance the personal buy-in and overall morale of any community. Being a link in the chain requires humility. It requires having the consciousness to know when to step back and learn, and when to step forward and take the lead. As I continue to grow my rabbinate, I continue to work on my sense of awareness, so I can best realize what is asked of me in the moment, and have the confidence to trust in my response.
When Moses responded to God, he did so fully present in the moment, but not necessarily looking toward his future. However, precisely by being in the moment and responding Hineni, Moses took a critical step towards his future as a leader.
That winter morning in the hospital, I was called on to lead. What in the moment felt like doing the right thing for a friend, was in fact indicative of a much bigger piece of my identity, past, present, and future.
I was called on for my presence.
I was called on for my wisdom.
I was called on for my connection to the chain of tradition.
I was called, and I answered: Here I am, Hineni.