Remarks delivered by CBI President Mariela Markelis Dybner on Rosh Hashanah 2018/5779.
Here I am.
During most of the prayers that we recite on the High Holidays, we use the first person plural: We praise you. God, save us because we have sinned. We pray together as a community and we express ourselves together as one.
But the Hineni prayer, which is chanted by Cantor Wallach prior to Musaf, stands apart from the other High Holiday prayers in that it is in the first person singular — Hineni, Here I am. It’s like we are spectators to this moment of the service. Our cantor engages in a one-on-one dialogue with God, asking for her prayers to be well received, despite any personal shortcomings.
The cantor recites: Hineni he’ani mima’as. Here I am, impoverished in deeds and merit. But nevertheless I have come before You, God, to plead on behalf of Your people Israel.
Our tradition teaches us that each individual is responsible for his or her own prayer. Unlike some other traditions, we don’t recognize an intermediary or go-between. The cantor prays with us, not for us. We can see this in the layout of the service. In a traditional sanctuary, as we have, the chazzan and the congregation face the same direction. Each of us is responsible for reciting each word of the text. So why chant the Hineni?
The Hebrew word “hineni” is translated in many different ways. It suggests one’s presence in a situation, especially one fraught with tension and responsibility. Whenever a character in the Bible underwent a moment of profound change or crisis, he or she pronounced this same word: Hineni. Here I am.
When God called upon Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham answered, “Hineni.” When the angel of God later rushed to stop Abraham from performing this obscene act, Abraham once again said, “Hineni.” And when Moses stood before the burning bush and was called by name from within, he too responded, “Hineni.” Sometimes, as in the book of Esther, one human being – in this case Mordechai – calls out to another — in this case Esther, to grow in leadership and influence. Isaiah said it when God was searching for a leader and volunteered himself with the beautiful words: “Here I am. Send me.”It’s as if in that one word, Isaiah and those before him were saying, “I am ready to do great things.”
In these episodes, our biblical ancestors emerged transformed. And so it is with the chazzan on these most sacred days in the Jewish calendar. More than a simple indication of being physically present in a location, the word “Hineni” is more of an existential expression. I’m not only here, but I’m here. Spiritually, I’m all in. I’m prepared to reflect on who I am, what’s important to me, and how I can effect change for others.
So, today, I ask of all of you, to say together, Hineni. Here I am.
Take this important time to reflect on yourself, on what’s important to you and on how you can effect change for others.
When an opportunity presents itself to improve the world around you, be present and say Hineni. Many of us lead busy lives; we are pulled in different directions; there are varied demands on our time, on our efforts, on our wallets. Take a moment to take stock of yourself during these days of awe and truly make a conscious, deliberate decision about how you want to spend your time, your efforts, your money.
Our community is embarking on a momentous transition. We may not face the existential crises of our biblical ancestors, but I believe that this may be our time to emerge transformed, our moment of Hineni. There are so many wonderful ways to enrich the congregation while becoming enriched by the experience….
Take a class or come to a lecture– If you haven’t already, you will soon receive the booklet on Lifelong Learning with descriptions of classes– we are hosting the first year of the Melton program taught by Rabbi Litwin and Lisa Lisser, classes on Wrestling with God and the Joseph Narratives led by Rabbi Bayar, a weekend of song with Pizmon, the Jewish A Capella group from Columbia, Barnard and JTS, classes in Talmud by Rabbi Akiba Lubow, lectures by Peabody winner Matt Katz on immigration in America and our community shaliach Amit Stern on religious pluralism in Israel. Please invest the time in yourself– participate in as many of these as you can.
Come to our twice daily minyan. We are the only Conservative synagogue in the local area that provides such frequent opportunity for communal prayer. Make the effort to come in the morning or the evening to be counted as one of the ten and support our friends in mourning. It’s a truly fulfilling way to start or end your day.
Give as freely as you are able, knowing that your financial backing is helping our shul to create a Jewish community, to provide meaningful programming, to teach the next generation, and to sustain people in need.
Volunteer your time and efforts on one of our committees. Many of them are still in formation and could use a bright mind like yours! We need cooks and designers, ushers and fundraisers, pitchers and catchers, governance mavens and financial gurus to make this place run. Let me or a Board member know where your passions and acumen lie, and I will help get you set up with the right group.
As some of you may know, I became your president early and unexpectedly in May of this year. In the few short months that I have been your president, I have been awed by the time, efforts and funds that you have given so warmly to CBI. I am reassured that we work together in this great endeavor and so at this time, I urge you to reflect and join me in saying Hineni!