Two Jewish friends meet each other on the street. Diane says to Ruth – I just got back from a meditation retreat and I tell you, you have to try it.
Ruth says – It’s not for me. I can’t sit on the floor with my legs tied in an knot. It’s shmutzy. It hurts my back. Really, no thanks.
Diane says – Oh you can sit in a chair. That’s not the point. Ruth – I feel totally present. My mind is clearer. You’ll love it.
Ruth says – Diane, Jews don’t meditate. All that silence – It’s unnatural. I’m just not interested.
Diane say – Ruth, you should really try it. It has changed my life.
Finally, Ruth yells out – Would you stop huckin’ a chaynick, already. I don’t have time to ‘Be here now!’
Be Here Now – It’s not just a New Age phenomenon. It’s not a uniquely Eastern spiritual engagement. In fact, being here now, being awake and present in this ever-changing reality is a deeply Jewish imperative and practice. The Torah’s word for this state of being is Hineni – Here I am. Abraham spoke it. Joseph called it out. Moses uttered it. Leonard Cohen used it, looking his immanent death steadily in the eyes and singing out – Hineni, hineni – I’m ready, My Lord.
Hineni is a response to being called, ready for whatever is about to unfold.
It is not surprising that the Torah reading that our early Sages chose for the second day of Rosh Hashana is a Hineni story. And it’s also not surprising that they chose perhaps the most challenging narrative in the Torah – the story of Akedat Yitzchak, the near-sacrifice of Isaac. In 14 intense and short verses, Abraham responds, “Hineni” three separate times.
Here is a summary of the narrative – Ve’ha’elohim nissa et Avraham – God put Abraham to the test. Vayomer elav “Avraham,” vayomer, “Hineini”. God said to him, “Abraham.” And he answered, “Hineni.”
And God said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and raise him up there as an offering on one of the heights that I will show you.”
Abraham wakes up early the next morning and heads out with two servants and his son Isaac. He splits the wood. He saddles his donkeys. And they journey for 3 days.
On the 3rd day, Abraham sees the mountain at a distance. He tells his servants to wait there, that he and the boy will go up the mountain, they will worship and they will return.
Abraham takes the wood for the burnt offering and places it on his son Isaac. He takes the firestone and the knife; and the two walk on together.
Then Isaac says, “Avi – My father!” And Abraham answers, “Hineni, my son.” Isaac asks, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”
Abraham responds – “God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son.” And the two of them walk on together.
They go up the mountain. Abraham builds an altar there; he lays out the wood; he binds his son Isaac and lays him on the altar. Abraham picks up the knife to slay his son when the voice of an angel breaks into the scene calling out – “Avraham, Avraham.” And Abraham responds, “Hineni.”
The angel says, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you are in awe of the Divine, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”
Just then, Abraham looks up and sees a ram stuck in the thicket by its horns and he offers it in place of his son.
Abraham names that site Adonai-yireh, meaning, “On the mount of Adonai there is vision.”
Taking this story at a literal level, it is deeply disturbing. What kind of cruel test is this? What kind of barbaric God would ask a person to sacrifice their child – a child Abraham was blessed with at the age of 100?! And is this story meant to teach us to choose faith and obedience over moral conscience?!
Thank goodness, we don’t read Torah literally. And mustn’t. If we get stuck in the literal, we will completely misunderstand what Judaism is and we might as well go home. Thank goodness we are part of a brilliant tradition that interprets the words of Torah, turning them and turning them like a many-faceted gem, seeing each verse illuminating hundreds of meanings. Thank goodness, we are part of a tradition that sees Torah as a profound spiritual guide, reading it like a myth, like a dream, filled with allusions and symbolism, revealing existential and spiritual truths. This is what makes it timeless and importantly relevant. I spend my life studying Torah because I keep discovering new ways to read it, and so I keep discovering new insights about how to be most fully human.
Let’s also remember a few things about God. The Torah’s most sacred name for God is יה-וה /YHVH, a form of the verb, ‘to be,’ collapsing together Is, Was and Will be; so God is All-Being and Constant Becoming. God’s name at the burning bush is Eheyeh asher eheyeh – I shall become as I become. My colleague, Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, so helpfully invites us to read God’s name as ‘Sacred Life Unfolding’.
So now we can enter this story very differently. Ve’ha’elohim nissa et Avraham – And Life Unfolding tested Abraham. Aren’t we tested by Life all the time? This isn’t the test of an external judge evaluating whether we succeed or fail. But Life is constantly testing us, testing our mettle, and through being stretched and tossed and tested, we can learn what we are made of and we can choose what hold us up. We either let it knock the stuffing out of us or we decide who want to become because of it. How will you show up today? What choices will you make to either shrink from Life or rise to meet it? Will you be a conscious participant in Sacred Life Unfolding?
So Life tested Abraham and he answered – Hineni. There is no pause between the call and the response. Before he knows what will be asked of him, Abraham responds with full presence. Here I am, ready to meet whatever unfolds next.
And here is what unfolds – Life tested Abraham and said to him – take what is most precious to you, what you love fiercely and be willing to let it go*. Friends, this is the heart of Jewish spiritual practice. This is the truth of being mortal, of having a body that is vulnerable, experiences that are impermanent, being in a world that is constantly changing. The Torah shakes us with discomfort, choosing the most distressing, most painful embodiment of a process we confront every single day. This is the truth of loving and letting go.
You wake up one morning and the air is crisp and red leaves are appearing on the trees and although you don’t want it to be, the sweetness of summer is over. You have to let go. You wake up one morning and you have more grey hairs or there are more hairs in the drain and fewer on your head. You have to let go. Your plans for a full and productive day fall apart when your kid gets sick and you have to stay home.
These losses are relatively small but they are real, and they are practice. With each of them, I can either resist, refuse, pretend they aren’t happening or I can soften into a practice of Hineni – letting go of what I wanted and embracing what is right here. Of course, fight for the things you can change, but for those that you can’t, can you meet them with courage and with tenderness? Can you nurture a fluid way of moving through life, unfolding with it instead of bucking against it? Can you be gently present with your disappointment, openly grieving the loss of what you are losing, and still be available to discover the gifts and even the joy that are unfolding right in front of you?
Of course the story of the Akedah challenges us to show up fully for life’s heaviest losses – the end of a marriage, the loss of a job, aging and letting go, piece by piece, of health and independence, and letting go of the people we love.
Judy Byck, may her memory be a blessing, died of cancer this summer at the age of 55. Her sister Sarah is one of our dear members. Among our phone calls and emails in Judy’s last weeks and then following her death, Sarah wrote me an email that I have permission to share with you. She wrote, “It all comes down to staying open to what is. Judy’s favourite phrase, which she used a lot during her final months, was “it’s like this, now.” Staying with that, not turning away, will be my work and my practice.”
Hineni is not only a statement of presence. You utter it and you have built an altar to offer your heart. Here I am. You take what you thought belonged to you and offer it, with humility and gratitude, with rage and weeping, with reverence and sweetness, because you are finite, because it was never really yours, and because you had the exquisite gift of loving. Hineni is another way of saying, my heart is open. If it is open to love, then it can learn to be open to loss, and if you close it against pain, you close it against everything else.
Yes. Learning to love with open arms. Hineni.
When Sarah and I spoke during Judy’s last weeks, she told me, ‘I’ve lost my sense of meaning. Why do people who waste their lives get to live and my sister, who loved life so much, is dying?’ In loss we don’t only lose the people we love, but there is also the letting go of the ideas that have held our world in place, and there is the terrifying free fall that comes before wiser and weathered meaning can unfold. Yes. Hineni.
And when Judy was in hospital and Sarah told me that she was struggling with how to visit with her sister, wanting to be positive and upbeat for her when the sadness is so intense, we talked about the holy practice of presence. I told her that these are the moments when I pray, when I stand outside a hospital room or before a funeral and I rest into The Presence, the One and Oneness that is infinitely larger than me, that moves through me like riding on the wave of the eternal, holding me so that I can show up. I don’t how to do it any other way.
What can you trust and lean into that is bigger than yourself so that you can be intimate with the loving and with the letting go over and over? There is such tenderness in the moment when Abraham responds to his son. Hineni, my son. I cry when I read that. He doesn’t brace for the coming loss by shutting himself off from his son. He turns towards him every step of the way and the two walk on together. Yes. Hineni.
We actually don’t have time not to Be Here Now. Showing up for the hardest stuff we will have to face in this life takes practice every day. It is a sacred practice every day. The shofar that we blow on Rosh Hashana is the horn of that ram from mount Moriah, from the place of being in awe of the Divine, in awe of this Sacred Life Unfolding, and withholding nothing – choosing not to armour yourself, not to hide from loving to spare yourself pain, choosing to embrace the fullness of this heartbreaking, loving and magnificent life, cherishing its precious gifts and offering them back. Yes. Hineni.
*I credit and thank Rabbi Jonathan Kligler for this deeply insightful way of interpreting the Akedah narrative.