adam titcherIs it possible to give something our full attention and find meaning in that moment, as well as everything else we do in life?  How is this possible when we seem to have less and less time to be with people and more and more things to do! How can we be present for people and still manage to find quality in everything else we have?
How do we create a balance in life for our physical and spiritual needs?
Rosh Hashanah is a time to put aside our schedules and to-do lists, in order to reflect and find meaning for a year that has passed and the future that is moments away.
We are challenged to forgive people. We ask to be forgiven. We are pushed to turn inward and find a wholehearted relationship with God and with people we call friends, family, and community.
The Hebrew word Hineni as it appears throughout the bible including three times in our Torah reading today, can be translated as “I am here,” or “I am ready.” But what does it mean to be here and ready?
Are we all here and ready today?
Yes, we are physically but are we really here emotionally and even spiritually? Are we ready for it to be the New Year? Are we wholeheartedly present in our behavior when with loved ones?
If I am present at my own job, how it is really possible for me to say Hineni at home with my family if I choose to still think about work?
I want to create a balance and find a place within me where I can say Hineni – I am here in this moment and am able to remain there in this moment until the next thing I do.
I am not suggesting we can be present all the time but when we are focused on the work or relationships in front of us, we can say Hineni and be 100% of who we are.
The story of the Akedah remains one of the most complicated stories of our Tradition. We are challenged by our patriarch Abraham’s actions, as he takes on the difficult task of sacrificing his son Isaac to God.
But is this the message of the story: Do not sacrifice your children?
This is a legitimate interpretation of the story, especially if we look at the ending when God and the Angel prevent Abraham from murdering Isaac. However, this idea is also rejected by biblical scholars including Nahum Sarna who offers that:
“…the narrative is the product of a religious attitude that is already long conditioned to the notion that Israelite monotheism is incompatible with human sacrifice. …God’s request is treated as something utterly extraordinary, something that a person would never think of doing on his own initiative. …God’s request is so clearly shocking and unrepeatable that the reader is informed in advance that God is only testing Abraham and does not want the sacrifice for His own needs.”
For Sarna, this story is about extremes, not normalcy. Its purpose is to demonstrate the faith of one man who goes against what is normal in society, and offers his son to God.
Therefore let us ask why Abraham is so willing to kill Isaac? Why is he so obedient to God? What do we learn when he calls out the word Hineni?
In his book Passing Life’s Tests Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson analyzes this story for us as modern readers. My understanding of the text is enriched by Rabbi Artson’s book and I would like to share some of his lessons today.
Three times Abraham responds to his name being called with the phrase Hineni—I am here. I am ready. Three times he engages in either a task or with other people with 100% attention.
His soul and physical being are bound together by this word Hineni. He commits himself to God. He demonstrates fatherly love towards his son, Isaac. And he finally creates a balance between the demands of God and Isaac and within himself, as Rabbi Artson suggests.
The Akedah reading offers us a yearly opportunity to work on balancing the Hinenis in our lives that we may not have known existed.
Let’s look at the 1st Hineni – And God said to him: Abraham. And he answered “I am here.”
In Abraham’s life narrative God has already tested Abraham several times.
Yet the final test is unthinkable because it is counterproductive to the task at hand of creating a covenant between God and Abraham’s future. In fact, there would be no legacy if Isaac died, so why would God even ask Abraham to do this?
We know that Abraham is committed to God. When he says Hineni, he demonstrates that even the most difficult challenge cannot push him away from God. His trust in God remains stronger than ever.
Even though it is an unimaginable request, Abraham refuses to walk away from God.
If we read the text of God’s request carefully, according to Rabbi Artson, God says to Abraham kach-na et bincha please take your son. Rabbi Artson understands the word Na, please, to mean an act of entreaty (in-treaty) by God to Abraham.
Reading Na very closely, Artson goes further, saying that God is not just asking Abraham a request but he is pleading to Abraham. God too is committed to Abraham, and is as invested in this relationship as Abraham is when he says Hineni.
The test therefore, is for both of them to accept together.
Rabbi Artson notes that Abraham expresses complete wholeheartedness with God in this moment: “This story is the best example of trusting faithfulness,” he says. “Faith is not a matter of intellectual content but rather an attribute of trust, a sense of embedded-ness and connection.
“Abraham is an ish emunah, a person of faith because he relies on his ability to trust in God even while he is beset by doubt, and even tortured with the possibility of pain and loss.”
What we learn from Abraham is that faith comes from a place within us that can withstand the harsh realities surrounding us. Abraham’s haste in moving forward without even mentioning a word to Sarah, notifies the reader that Abraham understands how fulfilling the action will bring about completeness.
Rushing to do this however, creates imbalance in his home life, and even pushes him away from his son for the three days journey.
Do we also behave this blindly during our days? Do we work in our jobs with a faith that distracts us from trying to focus on anything else? Do we assume that by giving our full attention to work, whether that is making money, or doing hesed in the world, everything else we have will simply be good and well?
Artson says that, we too are faced with moments that test our faith and faithfulness. We absorb ourselves in completing the task because Emunah is a complete faith that we each have been given, that we have received from Abraham.
Faith is our ability as people to train our kavannah, our intentions when we respond to life’s challenges; and how we decide to act in moments that demand our absolute attention.
How do we develop this faith from within us?
Like Abraham, we should not resist the urge to utilize our faith and say Hineni in moments of great action, or even in ordinary experiences.
Abraham teaches us this is how people operate: we say Hineni.
We crave success in what we do and we desire to be in meaningful relationships with others. We would like to be met with the same, if not more, trust and faith from God than we give God.
We learn from the Akedah that ultimately God is waiting to be met by our reply in all moments.
It is not God watching over each thing we do, but just as God has made a request of Abraham, so too that request of entering relationship extends to us today.
We are asked to provide a reciprocating faith to God so that we are able to find meaning in our actions and relationships.
The challenge remains that if we choose to take on everything we do with a sense of Hineni, what does that look like?
How do we prepare to do something when we are unsure of the outcomes, unsure of what is truly to be gained? What matters most is how we orient our faithfulness and trust.
To whom do you orient your trust? Is it God? Is it family? Is it work?
We turn to the 2nd Hineni — Isaac said to Abraham: my father. He said “I am here, my son.”
Our story is filled with tension. Aside from the sacrifice itself, there is an unnerving silence throughout.
For three days, Abraham and Isaac do not speak to one another as they continue on this journey. Rashi suggests that while the two of them walked together physically, they were emotionally apart.
Abraham takes the wood for the sacrifice. He puts it on Isaac’s back. He takes the coal in his hand. He takes up the knife. And the two of them walk together. Although they were not connected emotionally, as Rashi pointed out, Abraham’s actions trigger Isaac to understand what is really happening.
Isaac continues to trust his father. Isaac agreed to walk with his father but does so in silence and according to the Midrash: Isaac said in his heart: “Who will save me from my father? I have no help except from the Holy One.”
And from his mouth comes a single word perhaps inspired by God to speak. This is the only conversation ever recorded between Abraham and Isaac.
Avi—my father, Isaac says, and in the terrible moment of irrational thinking and total faith, Isaac brings Abraham back to reality. Isaac summons his personal father, and expects his father to respond the same. He is demanding to be brought outside the silence and into a real relationship.
Hineni v’ni—I am here, my son. The father Isaac has asked for is there 100%.
One could argue that Abraham is simply lying to Isaac, so as not to worry him and to bring him to the fire with ease. However, I do not read the story this way.
In that moment I believe that Abraham is telling his son genuinely that he is with him, walking with him, and supporting him in spite of what seems to be.
Can Abraham say Hineni to God and Hineni to his son simultaneously? Can he kill his son for God and believe that God will save his son at the same time?
Isaac continues saying: Hine—behold, the fire and the wood but where is the lamb to offer to God? Abraham’s response: “God will see to the sheep for [God’s] burnt offering, my son.
In Artson’s book, contemporary spiritual leader Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman offers a more comforting reading and with it we hear Abraham’s fatherly voice: “God will see. He has the lamb for the offering, my son.”
In this second reading, Abraham reveals to his son that the sheep will be on top of the mountain when they get there. Abraham’s faith is that strong and is still committed to God, and he will go through with a sacrifice.
But he is also committed to letting his son know that he will live.
Abraham becomes a prophet in this moment. Because Abraham can focus his attention on both God and Isaac, he is able to balance his priorities and provide safety for his son while completing his test.
Abraham refuses to let his son’s insight challenge the task at hand, and he shows God that his faith is everlasting, enough that God will see, and take action on their behalf.
God has drawn a line initially, but it is God who is forced to cross that line to offer a balance of relationship.
“They walked together” is written a second time following this conversation. As they approached Mount Moriah, they walked literally physically side by side. But after the tension is broken Abraham offers Hineni v’ni, and they walk together wholeheartedly.
They went from mutual solitary into an undisturbed harmony of faith in one another and in God. The ancient Aramaic commentator Targum Yonatan clarifies that they walked together with a whole heart, one heart for each other and for God.
The language of walking together, the image of them side by side, father and son, connected in body and spirit, demonstrates the power of Hineni and how we are able to say Hineni to God and to people at the same time.
The depth of a relationship can increase by using and believing in the power of – Hineni. I am here with you, now in this moment, and will remain ready and connected to you.
As I stated earlier Abraham’s choice to sacrifice Isaac was a one-time test, never to be repeated again, but Isaac’s response, his interruption seems everlasting, creating space for relationships to grow with love, faith and connectedness.
Interruptions in life are just as important to each of us. It is okay to break the silence, and reengage how we live, and reorient our faith to others and God. We sometimes need to rearrange the order of our own priorities so that we can find the meaning in our loved ones and in God.
Finally, the 3rd Hineni – Angel of the Lord said: Abraham, Abraham. He said: I am here.
As Abraham committed to both God and Isaac, the reality was Abraham caught between two worlds, his relationship with God and his love for his son.
The central question according to Rabbi Artson is neither about child sacrifice nor Abraham’s faith in God. The central question facing both Abraham and Isaac is that of a conflicting love, of competing loyalties.
There is no way for them to reconcile their love for life, their love for each other and their love for God. Something must give so Abraham takes a stand.
We learn this in the moment when Abraham is called a third time.
We read that the Angel calls Abraham by name twice. I want to suggest that the phrase “Abraham Abraham” serves to be a recalling of the previous two calls.
The first Abraham – is that first call from God, the spiritual request for action in life, and he responds Hineni. And the second Abraham is the Avi – the father of Isaac and he responds Hineni.
Twice Abraham is called by an otherness of God, an anonymous voice, perhaps a voice that comes from within us, that we are not always ready to agree with, and Abraham answers its invitation with Hineni—I am here. I am ready for both of my existences!
When Abraham answers to the otherness, the voice inside of him, only then he looks up and finds the ram caught in the thicket awaiting its slaughter.
He has the solution to help balance his faith in God and his love for Isaac: The ram is a replacement for Isaac as the sacrifice, but also the fulfillment of the prophecy Abraham had made to his son earlier in the story.
Why did Abraham not see it immediately? Why did he have to answer the voice from within that called him twice, to finally recognize the ram before him?
Perhaps when we say Hineni spiritually and Hineni to the ones we love, the truth, the answers that go unnoticed but right before our eyes, finally become apparent.
This is the ah-ha moment that I like to challenge us in finding on Rosh Hashanah and in the days ahead. We are all seeking I hope, some kind of connection to God and people as we enter the New Year.
Perhaps we want to have a moment of holiness that we can cling on to, but we are not sure what that looks like or feels like. What we must recognize is that these moments of holiness pass by quickly, and we must be ready to open our eyes to them.
Hineni with God. Hineni with family. Hineni with ourselves.
Only then can we lift up our eyes and see the ram that is right in front of us.
Rabbi Artson offers that Abraham’s test is a revolution of vision. God no longer construes loyalties in terms of competition and opposition. God is seeking a fuller vision of harmony and complementa-rity.
We are asked not to compete with love and commitments for our relationships and tasks in life, pitting one loyalty against the other, but rather finding a middle ground.
In his book, Rabbi Artson references philosopher Josiah Royce. Royce wrote, “in order to unify life and create a center of stability in our relationships, we must choose a cause that will further, rather than frustrate the loyalties of others, as well as [our own].”
The cause I want to offer for us is to bring an awareness of Hineni into our daily lives.
Hineni can further improve our relationships with others, as well as with God.
Hineni can be the tool we need to bring about an ancient faith given from Abraham and Isaac that we have at times kept hidden inside of us.
The test we face, today, tomorrow and in the year ahead is finding opportunities and brief moments, when we are truly ready and present, and confident in saying Hineni.
Shana Tovah!