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September 21, 2018

A Word to Change the Course of History

Stephanie D. Kolin

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I was scrolling through the news on my way to work one recent morning and I saw that there had been yet another mass shooting with significant casualties and I thought, we need to do something about this. And then I read a story about an asylum-seeking mother on our southern border whose baby was taken away from her while she was nursing him and I cried, thinking – we really need to do something about this. And then an article about a man who’s been in jail for a year still awaiting a trial just because he can’t afford bail. And then one about policies that are eroding a woman’s right to choose. And then one about states trying to make it so same sex couples can’t adopt. And then one about North Korea’s capacity to reach us with nuclear weapons and I thought – we really need to do something about . . . all of that. And then my eyes caught a headline indicating that by the end of this century, if we don’t course correct soon, our planet will become uninhabitable. And I thought – oh come on. I could feel the overwhelm building inside me, the torrent of everything coming at me until I felt buried by it - each issue calling on me to do something, but feeling powerless to do anything. So I did what any of us would do – I took a deep breath, and I clicked on an article entitled: “23 of the cutest baby animals in the world.” (it helped). 

It was too much; I felt like I was drinking water from a fire hose. I think a lot of mornings feel like that these days. A week’s news cycle is a rollercoaster of complex world issues and human suffering.

And our personal lives and loved ones beg for our time and attention. We want to be and help everywhere, but the barrage of stuff can be totally incapacitating, leaving us curled up in a metaphorical ball instead.

How, then, with so much vying for our attention, do we figure out what we can do?

On Rosh Hashanah, we read a story in Torah called the Akeidah1, in which God tells Abraham to take his son, Isaac, to a place God will show him and sacrifice him there to God. On their walk together up the mountain, Isaac turns to his father and says: Father? And Abraham’s response echoes through Jewish time. He doesn’t say: what? Or yeah? Or even what do you need, Isaac? He says: “Hineini. I am here.” Father? I am here, my son. We can imagine Abraham must feel overwhelmed by all the thoughts and emotions racing through his head, but when he hears the call that tingles his heart most deeply, all the rest of the noise falls away, and he responds, completely present for his son.

Now, hineini is not a geographical experience. The word that means “I am physically here” in Hebrew is “po.” So then what is this Hineini?

Our commentator, Rashi, describes it as an expression of “readiness.”2  Hineini is spoken eight times in the Torah and each time, we find ourselves at a pivotal moment in our narrative,3 and our story shifts in some critical way.

The person who says it is both entirely present for the one they say it to and also ready to play their role in the unfolding of our people’s story. 

For example, when Moses wanders by a bush that is burning, but not being consumed, his mind must be full of a million different things – but then with piercing clarity, he hears God’s voice out of the shrub, calling his name: Moses, Moses. And he also answers – hineini.4 God then asks Moses to lead our people from slavery to freedom, and he responds – with considerable and understandable trepidation – but his answer is “I am here, I am ready, send me.”

In our text, the power of saying the word “hineini” is enough to change the course of history. It’s enough to heal profound suffering for one single person, or for the whole world. It’s a legacy given to us by our tradition: When our name is called, we are a people who respond: Hineini.

And our name is being called.

As it was for our ancestors, so hineini can be for us our clarity of purpose amidst the noise, a catalyst for healing profound suffering.

And our Hineini, too, has the power to change the course of history.

Hineini, however, is like a very personal, very high stakes game of Jeopardy. We are given the answer: “Hineini,” but we have to figure out what question is being asked of us – what is calling our name and which corner of the world are we being called to heal. For Abraham, it was as local as his own his son urgently needing his attention and love. For Moses, it was as vast as God asking him to lead our people from oppression to freedom.

What is it for you?

Some 12 years ago, I was at Temple Israel in Boston. A congregant called and said: my best friend is sick. I don’t really know how to help, but I do know she will need blood for her upcoming surgeries. Can we run a blood drive out of the synagogue? I was able to give her good news and harder news. The good news was that we could donate all the space and resources that she needed. The harder news was that for it to happen, she was going to have to run it. She must have started her sentence four times in response.

I work crazy hours, I can’t . . . she paused.

I’ve never done something like that, I can’t . . . she paused:

I’ve volunteered for this other project, and I can’t . . . she paused.

She began again, from somewhere deep in her heart. I can’t . . . not do this. I have to do this. Okay, let’s do this.

She was really busy, she had no idea how to pull it off, but even with all of her doubt and all the competing interests in her life, she had to run this blood drive. Her friend’s sickness, her own sense of helplessness, her heart, her body, her soul were drawn to answer: hineini. Her personal translation was: “I can’t not do this.”

Mark Twain once said: the two most important days of our lives are the day we are born and the day we figure out why.5 

The world right now NEEDS us to figure out our why. And of course we are hesitant and scared – My plate is full! What if I fail? What if I’m not the right person? What if I embarrass myself? Yet these holiest days of our year ask us to find a way past all of our “I can’ts,” to say: despite our feeling of overwhelm, our fear, our self-doubt, – I’m going to stand up and answer: hineini

Now I want to offer a caveat as we figure this out:

Judaism does not assume we have only one purpose, one call. Abraham’s “hineini” changed multiple times within one hike up a mountain. We change. The needs of the world change. And in different chapters of our lives, what we say hineini to will change. So ours is a focused question: in THIS moment, what are we called to do? What is the healing that we can bring to our corner of the world now?

First, if you are thinking – Rabbi, I feel existentially exhausted. I am too tired, too depleted, to answer hineini to anything right now – then you have already discovered the corner of the world that needs you to say “I am here.” It’s you. You are worth all the time and attention that it takes to heal and be made whole.

Or if you are hearing your family calling your name and they need your full attention right now - because there is a rough spot, a fracture, someone is sick, or it’s just a new chapter that needs all of you - then perhaps you have found your hineini and the healing that you need to do.

Or if a particular injustice or suffering in the world is breaking your heart or making your blood boil – then perhaps you have heard your name called, and feel somehow compelled to answer: hineini.

That’s what happened with my friend, Julie. She’d been hearing the news about families being separated at our southern border and it was really weighing on her, but she had found herself thinking: I have no idea what to do about this. And then, driving one day, she heard a news report about Yeni, a mom who had come from Guatemala, seeking asylum with her three young children. Because of the zero-tolerance policy, Yeni’s kids were taken from her. They hadn’t seen their mother for a month and a half.

The report continued: Luckily, Yeni was given a hearing and bond was set for her release, but she literally had nothing, and without the $7500 bond money, she was no closer to having her children back.

And suddenly, hearing this, the noise quieted for Julie and she heard her name called and she thought: I think I can do something about this. So she did. With a go fund me account and some serious chutzpah, Julie gathered her friends and they raised the bond money, got Yeni out of detention, and arranged a 5-leg journey of volunteers who drove Yeni from Arizona to NYC, where her children were being held. The very next day, reunited, Yeni got to hug her children. (She told Julie: “The day they took my children away from me, I told them, ‘I promise that I am going to fight for you and I am going to find you. And now here I am.” – Yeni’s own hineini moment.)

And now, just a few months later, Julie and her friends have reunited 36 mothers and kids, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, provided ongoing communal love and support, and inspired the national faith community6  to be part of it all.7

I asked Julie how she knew that this was her corner of the world to heal. She told me that she also was feeling inundated with a million important issues coming at her, but when she heard this story, she saw a place where she could have an impact.

She called it the disruption point. A way she could do a small, achievable act, and make a concrete difference. Everyone hears it in something different. She saw how she could reunite Yeni with her kids. She said it’s not about creating something massive – it’s about acting in our tiniest circle and letting it ripple outward. She was glad to learn the word: Hineini. She said we all have it in us.
Now if you’re sitting there thinking, as I was – come on – this woman is not your average regular person – where’s her invisible airplane and her lasso of truth? (That’s a Wonder Woman reference) - Then let me tell you that Julie is a mother of three with a fulltime job and a husband who is about to undergo 5 weeks of radiation. She has doubts and flaws and dreams. She is any of us. A regular normal person who said, “I can’t…not do this.”

Where is your Hineni this year? Think of the magnitude of healing we could put into the world this year if we each take just our own corner!

Some of us will find the courage to say hineini to ourselves. Some of us will take care of an aging parent or sick loved one who needs our whole self right now. Some of us will help a child that we know. Some of us will help thousands of children we don’t know. Some of us will help end gun violence. Some of us will win us bail reform. Some of us will make sure hundreds of hungry people have access to food. Some of us will stand up to Anti-Semitism and racism. Some of us will go to the border of our country, or to the jails in our city or to the courtroom or to the board room or to the classroom and change lives. Some of us will break the isolation of a senior. All of us will vote. (When you’re 18.) Some of us will call out the sexual harassment of an abuser. Some of us will clean up our waters or slow down climate change and some of us will gather our friends to protest in the streets. Can you feel the waves of hope in this room? What is possible if instead of “I can’t,” we say Hineni?

So, how DO we discern our unique call?

Take a moment now to consider how you come to know anything that is important to you. Do you find clarity on a walk in nature? In conversation with your most trusted friend? Studying Torah, praying, meditating? We ask ourselves: Of all that is vying for our time, what is the thing that needs us most? Where might we step in and lead?

Where could we join others to make a difference? Where can we imagine saying: “This is what I’m meant for right now because I can’t not do this.” And what’s the first step we might take?

Sometimes we don’t really have a choice – some circumstance comes up – we or a loved one is hurting or needs us in some way - and it demands our full attention and there is no other response, but hineini.

Sometimes, like for Julie, it strikes us like a lightning bolt of clarity and we know: I can’t not do this.

And then sometimes, we need to proactively shut out the noise and seek out our corner.

Philosopher Martin Buber teaches: Every person born into this world represents . . .  something that never existed before. . . .(Therefore) every single person is . . . called upon to fulfill their particularity in the world. Because this is not done, that is the reason why the Messianic Age is delayed.”8 

What does that mean? That there is a reason we are here right now. That each of us has skills and talents and passions that are necessary for this moment in time. If they weren’t necessary – we wouldn’t be here. No one else can do what you’re going to do.

The barrage of things coming at us all at once is not going to let up soon – that is both the nature of life as well as this historical moment in which we are living. But in our own hands is the healing of our souls, our homes, and our world.

Long ago, the word hineini was woven into our very beings, ready to emerge at just such a time as this. We may be afraid. We may stumble. We may not know exactly how to do what it is we are called to do. But if we can figure it out, if we can hear that which is calling our name, then like our ancestors before us, we stand up, we utter this word, we take just one step forward, and we have the power to change the course of history.

Shanah tovah and g’mar chatimah tovah.

1 Gen 22:1-19
2 Rashi on Gen 22:1
3 Thanks to Rabbi George Gittleman for the idea of the pivotal nature of Hineini,
4 Ex 3:4
5 Sigh . . . it appears that while this is often attributed to Mark Twain, it is, in fact, “Apocryphal Twain.” It has more accurately been traced to a sermon given in 1970 by Dr. Ernest T. Campbell, Senior Minister of Riverside Church in New York City. Oh internet, you are so crafty and I was so easily duped. The power of the quote stands, however, with gratitude to Dr. Campbell.
6 If you are part of a faith community and want to help reunite and support separated asylum-seeking families, please be in touch with me to learn about Faith Communities Reuniting Families (FCRF).
7 Learn more about how you can help with Julie’s work, now called “Immigrant Families Together” here:
8 The Way of Man: According to the Teaching of Hasidism, Martin Buber, p. 16