Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins sermon - Rosh Hashana 5799 - Hineni

Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins sermon - Rosh Hashana 5799


The story we tell about Rosh Hashanah is that it celebrates the creation of the world, the birth of humanity – of course this is not so in any scientific or historic sense – but it’s a fabulous metaphor to inspire reflection as to what it means to be human.  Our story begins with the prototypical human, Adam, being asked by God, “where are you?” only to answer, “I was afraid so I hid.”  This season, for us, is meant to be a time where we move beyond our fears and our inclination to hide and step up to the call to serve – to follow in the footsteps of our ancestral role models who when called to action, responded “hineni” - here I am, present and ready to serve. 

The first of these exemplars to respond “hineni” is Avraham Avinu, in the story we read each Rosh Hashanah, which we call “Akedat Yitzchak”, the binding of Isaac.  God calls Avraham to offer Yitzchak as an offering; Avraham immediately responds “hineni”, I am ready and at your service.  And again at the end of the story, knife raised above his son’s throat, an angel calls “Avraham Avraham” and he responds “hineni”, ready to follow the next divine command.  Fortunately for Yitzchak, the angel tells his father to offer the ram miraculously stuck in the thicket in his son’s stead, the ram’s horn, or shofar, one of the central elements of these days.  Without exploring the complexity of the story we acknowledge that it has been told for thousands of years in honour of Avraham’s faith and presence, his commitment to serve to the nth degree, his “hineni.”

Then, in language evocative of this story comes the call to Moses at the burning bush, as Moshe turns to look at the amazing sight and is called by an angel therein, “Moshe Moshe”.  He responds “hineni”, here I am.  Thus begins his journey as the leader of our people for all time to this day, “Moshe Rabbeinu”.  Moshe, our greatest teacher and prophet, becomes the personal exemplar of what it means to live a life as an “Eved Adonai”, a servant of God, just what we, the people of Israel, are meant to be. 

There is a third model for this statement of “Hineni”, and that is from the next great prophet Isaiah, whose prophecies we read throughout the year, especially in these seven weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and then again on Yom Kippur.  We read one verse from Isaiah every day in the climax of our prayers.   In the Kedusha, or sanctification of God, we repeat Isaiah’s vision of the ministering angels singing praise to God, “kadosh, kadosh, kadosh” – holy, holy, holy is God.  After this vision Isaiah hears the voice of God asking whom he should send to the people, and Isaiah responds, “send me, hineni”. Isaiah’s vision of angels antiphonally praising God evokes the tradition that describes humans as “little lower than the angels” (Psalms 8:6) To be connected to the holy one, and understand that we are part of the divine that is part of us, might be the most important and impactful teachings of humanity. 

But as Leonard Cohen suggests in one of his final ballads, to think we are only just lower than the angels, just one step away from God (however we imagine that), can lead us to a dark side.   He sings: “They're lining up the prisoners and the guards are taking aim; I struggled with some demons; They were middle class and tame; You want it darker; We kill the flame; Hineni, hineni; I'm ready, my lord.” There is a dark side to claiming “hineni”, one of egotistical arrogance, because in doing so we may see ourselves as just one step away from ultimate power, which can lead to patriarchal prejudice, triumphant and chauvinistic violence and cruelty.

Avraham, Moshe and Isaiah – whose deeds and words and whose stories have guided us for thousands of years, encourage us also to say “hineni”, here I am, ready to serve.  But to serve whom and to do what?

Avraham is the ultimate champion of justice and equity, of the courage of his convictions, yet he has also become the ultimate symbol for the patriarchy, the alpha male.  The one who hears God tell him to sacrifice his own son can lead others to think that they too can take life to serve higher purpose. Patriarchy has much to answer for in our times – a hierarchical model of power, one that insists that gender is binary and the masculine primary. Patriarchy has led to insidious gender discrimination throughout a vast array of human culture; its teaching of “power over” as opposed to “power with” has become a scourge for humanity.  If we are to say “hineni”, “here I am”, it must be with a different understanding of what here means now, it must come with a different understanding of what it means to give service in this life.

Moshe is the teacher of the basic rules applicable to humanity – from what is known as the “ten commandments” to the essential “love your neighbour as yourself”.  From Moses’ teaching comes so much beauty and wisdom, including the gift of Shabbat and these deeply meaningful ten days of awe and repentance.  Yet the man who saw God in the burning bush also burns with zeal.  When his understanding of God is challenged at the incident of the golden calf, he calls out to his fellow Levis, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel.  Put every man his sword by his side, and go out to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.”  (Exodus 32:26-27).  To what horrors can “hineni” lead when we think, just because we “are little lower than angels” we know “God’s will”?

These Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, these Yamim Noraim - days of repentance and awe – serve as a most essential corrective. On these days the rabbis remind us we have two aspects to our nature – yes, a sense of divinity, but also mere food for the worms and maggots.  We recite “U’natenah Tokef” as a prelude to the Kedusha, in which we recite that “each person’s origin is dust, and each will return to the earth having spent life seeking sustenance.  Our teaching compares human beings to a broken shard, withering grass, a shrivelled flower, a passing shadow, a fading cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattered dust, a vanishing dream.”  All the hubris that leads to the certainty, bigotry and violence of humanity – these days sadly far too exemplified by many of our leaders – should dissolve into humility as we contemplate our lives on Rosh Hashanah.

These days we are asked to keep God in perspective, not to project human foibles and conceit upon it, but to simply let it be, as we teach in the Shema, the unity of all that is.  Isaiah, in a later teaching, gives us an understanding of how to do this.   It is not we who say “hineni”, but God, who says: “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me, I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me.  Hineni.”  (Isaiah 65:1)  Presence always is, and if we in turn want to serve and be present, if we in turn want to say “hineni”, then we need to understand what that means in its most deep and profound essence. 

The prophet Ezekiel says it in four words, which are also found in the kedusha of our daily prayers just after Isaiah’s “kadosh, kadosh, kadosh”.  Ezekiel’s revelation is: “Barukh Kavod Adonai Mimkomo” – blessed is God’s glory from its place.  And what is the place of the infinite one? Everywhere.  Presence always is.  In you, and you, and you, and me, in all of us.  In every sentient being.  Pulsating in this planet earth. 

Sadly, however, blind to the evidence of the continuum of life of which we are just a part, we continue to arrogate to ourselves power and status over and against the other. These are the days of awe, in which we are called to put our lives into perspective in face of the awesomeness of life itself.  These are the days of repentance, in which we are called to reorient ourselves with that life force in all of its manifestations: “Barukh Kavod Adonai Mimkomo”, blessed is God’s glory from its place.  When we truly and faithfully absorb and live that teaching, then we can transform ourselves and our relationships and say “hineni”.

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