HENINI – 5779
Rabbi Susan Elkodsi
Following Yizkor, Rabbi Schotz will lead us in the Musaf service, beginning with the recitation of a centuries-old prayer simply called, Hineni, for its first word. Hineni means “Here I am.” If you think back to Hebrew School, very often the teachers took attendance in Hebrew, and the answer, when you heard your name called, was, ani po, “I am here.” It might not sound like much of a difference, but in reality, the two are words – and worlds – apart.
We hear hineni – and its “end of the sentence” pausal form – Hi-nay-nee, in the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading; first when Abraham responded to God’s call to bring his son Isaac for a sacrifice, and then, when Abraham responded to Isaac’s question regarding the lamb for that sacrifice. It’s also in today’s hafatarah. Biblically speaking, hi-nay-nee means much more than simply being in the room for roll call; it’s an acceptance of a role, a stepping up to the plate, so to speak, a response to an important–a very important–call. When a biblical character responded with hi-nay-nee, it meant something important was about to happen, such as when God called to Moses at the Burning Bush.
The concept of gathering for prayer is as ancient as prayer itself, and while the printing press may have made prayer accessible to the masses, there was still someone leading services, called in Hebrew a shaliach tzibbur, an emissary of the congregation. Not an intermediary who would serve as the go – between for the people and God, but a leader who was knowledgeable, to facilitate.
Serving as the shaliach tzibbur, as the rabbi or cantor, even the bar or bat mitzvah leading the service, is a daunting task. You’ve probably heard the often-quoted statistic that men are more afraid of public speaking than death, which prompted Jerry Seinfeld to quip, “Which means that if you’re at a funeral, you’d rather be the guy in the casket than the one giving the eulogy.” Women are more afraid of spiders and snakes than public speaking, which I can definitely attest to.
Being the service leader, whether it’s the first, fifth or 50th time, is intimidating, and the Hineni prayer, composed by an anonymous cantor sometime before 1560, reflects that fear, and the understanding of the magnitude of the task.
Many congregations have a verse over their ark which says, da lifnei mi atah omeid, “Know before Whom you stand.” I’m not sure if that’s supposed to make me feel better, or less nervous, or not. Standing before God is a bit intimidating, especially when I’m looking out at a sea of humans counting on me to bring them along into the liturgy and into a conversation with the Holy One.
Not that I want to give away my secrets, but rabbis and cantors aren’t endowed with special superpowers, and we weren’t knighted and given special Divine permission to be here today leading these services. Anyone here today could learn to do this. Now I’ll give you a moment for the collective gasp and “I could never do that!” “I’m not smart enough, old enough, young enough, I don’t have a good voice … pick one or come up with another one.
What we’re really saying is, I’m not worthy of this, and guess what, we’re up here are thinking same thing in our heads and hearts. We’re doing our best not to let that show, and to make this all appear effortless, but the reality is that a little humility goes a long way in reminding us who we are and what we’re here for.
When my father, of blessed memory, was a teenager, he worked as a waiter at Schenk’s Paramount in the Catskills, and one of the big famous cantors of that era would often be there. In speaking about him, my father said, “So and so would come, and we had these big double doors leading into the dining room, and his head was too bit to fit through them.”
There’s a difference between a swelled head and a healthy ego, and the Hineni prayer, which is traditionally when the Cantor would begin his or her part of the service, reminds us of the daunting task ahead; the task of creating a meaningful experience for those present, while at the same time, hoping everyone will say nice things about us afterwards.
In some congregations, when it’s time for the Hineni, the hazzan would begin quietly from the back of the room and walk towards the bima, often belting out, af al pi, sheh-ayni kadayit, “I am not worthy,” which was either designed to elicit a response of, “Oh, but you are the most worthy!” from the congregation, or demonstrate that said cantor had no clue about the meaning of what they were chanting.
Everyone struggles with feelings of incompetence, inferiority and unworthiness, even – and I’d say especially– those who would have you think they have it all together. And if have gotten it all together, they have no idea where they put it. The question is, how do we keep those feelings, those fears, from paralyzing us? One way comes from Tom Carter, my Dale Carnegie Sales Course instructor. He had a favorite saying, “If you lay an egg, stand back and admire it.” I’m pretty sure I could fill one of those pallets from BJs.
Humility and believing that we are making positive contributions to the world and to our communities aren’t mutually exclusive; they can combine to help us develop resilience; the ability to bounce back and keep going.
When Rabbi Schotz and I were talking about being rabbis and chaplains, she mentioned a woman named Brene Brown; a social researcher, professor and author, who has spent decades researching some of our most basic emotions, including shame and resilience. After hearing one of her videos I decided to read a couple of her books.
Shame is an odd thing to research, don’t you think? But we’ve all had those moments. Brown defines shame as, “the universal fear of being unworthy of love and belonging.” It’s a feeling and thought process that comes up after a bone-headed move, when you do one of those “I could have had a V-8” head-smacks, which then spirals into rumination, going over and over what you said or did, losing sleep, and convincing yourself you’re the worst person in the world. And not only that, everyone knows it and they’re posting it on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Maybe even blogging, who knows?
If this were an evangelical church, I’d invite everyone to stand up and testify, or confess, to share that moment that brought up the feeling of shame, whether we did it to ourselves, or someone perpetuated that feeling in us. Notice I didn’t say, “made us feel that way,” because as the saying goes, “no one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” That’s true, but boy is it tough to deal with.
You can exhale, I’m not going to ask anyone to share, but I will say that feelings of shame often lose their power over us when we do share what happened, when we speak about the situation, and when we name the feelings. What often happens in that case is a chorus of “Thank God it’s not just me.”
This was powerfully demonstrated to me very early in rabbinical school. I was convinced I would be outed as an imposter, that people would figure out that I knew nothing, had no place there and would never be a good rabbi. There was so much I didn’t know, and three years after ordination, I think there’s even more I don’t know. But two things happened. One, in a class about the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, a senior student said, “I know Jeremiah was a bullfrog.” I knew that! The second thing was being told, and then experiencing this, to not be afraid to ask questions that might seem stupid, because chances are a few others in the room are breathing a sigh of relief that someone had to courage to take the risk of asking. I might still have felt stupid for not knowing, but at least I knew I was in good company.
How powerful is it to realize that we’re not alone in our feelings? Brene Brown writes, “We don’t have to experience shame to be paralyzed by it, the fear of being perceived as unworthy is enough to silence us.” It happens to the best of us; and not to blame my parents, who sadly aren’t here to defend themselves, but even the most well-meaning parents, teachers and other adults use shame as an attempt to correct behavior, often without realizing it. And try as I might, I know I did that to my kids, and for that I apologize and hope they’ll eventually forgive me.
Feelings of not being worthy – worthy of love, affection, a career, family, good friends – and the shame that goes along with it, are especially in the forefront of our minds and hearts on Yom Kippur. Standing here together, beating our hearts, beating ourselves up … even though these transgressions are in the plural, I’m willing to bet that most of us internalize them in the singular. I know I do. Am I the only one with a mental checklist? “Did this. Did this. Didn’t do that. Did this. No idea what this one is …” and so on. With the modern translations in our machzor, and a larger vocabulary than when I was a child, I have a better understanding, but was having haughty eyes the same as astigmatism? Unclean lips? I washed my face!
I can joke about this, but humor always has a basis in reality, and we are, let’s face it, human. I can acknowledge my imperfections and my wrong-doings and still feel that I’m a worthwhile person with much to offer to the world and to those around me. Wow, did I just say that out loud?
I really don’t like the idea of acknowledging my imperfections, and I like the fact that I have imperfections even less, but that’s part of what makes me human. So often we believe that certain things have to happen before we will be seen as worthy; if I lose 20 pounds, if I get or stay sober, if everyone thinks I’m a terrific parent, if I can make a living selling my art or my music, and perhaps one of the biggest, when my parents finally approve. The real challenge is believing that we’re worthy just as we are, and simply because we are.
In my 30s, I was told that I had been diagnosed as a perfectionist at the age of 8. Probably everyone knew except me. But it’s only in the last few years that I’ve been able to accept and work with that, and to not feel that I need others to validate my worth. Oh wait, I still do, but I’m working on it. As Brown astutely points out, “Perfectionism never happens in a vacuum. It touches everyone around us. We pass it down to our children, and it’s suffocating for our friends and families.” As the saying goes, “those of you who think you know everything are very annoying to those of us who really do.”
But the truth is that being less than perfect can help make us more human and approachable, and that’s how I want to be, and how I want others to see me. Having someone tell me after services or a pastoral visit that they sensed that God was in the room, or that they felt a connection with me, means a lot more than someone saying, “You have a nice voice.” It doesn’t mean I don’t like hearing that as well, so feel free, and I promise to accept with a gracious “thank you.”
Who and what we are, and what we do, aren’t the same. Good people make bad choices and do bad things, and shame often gets confused with guilt. Guilt says, “I did something bad.” Shame says, “I am bad.”
The purpose of beating our hearts on Yom Kippur during the various viduis, the confessionals, goes back to ancient times when the heart was considered the seat of thought and emotion. The Jerusalem Talmud tells us that “The heart and eyes are two agents of sin; the eye sees, the heart desires, and the instruments of action, that is, the hands, complete. Therefore, the hand beats the heart as if to denote that the heart caused wrongdoing.”
Nowhere here does our worth as a person come into play, just our choices and actions. We acknowledge our guilt and hopefully engage in the process of teshuva, turning or reorienting ourselves so that we can do better moving forward.
Focusing on everything we did wrong, as we do in the Ashamnu and Al Chet, can be a one-way ticket to feeling despair and distress, which is very likely what prompted Rabbi Avi Weiss to write a positive Ashamnu; “we have loved, we have blessed, we have grown, we have given good advice,” and so on. You should each have a copy at your seat.
Letting go of who we think we should be, or who we think other people want us to be, takes time and practice. It takes becoming resilient by learning and reminding ourselves that we will live through this. It’s not easy, but there are lots of people who have developed what Brene Brown calls “shame resilience,” and in her research, found that there are common factors among those people.
These include being resourceful, having good problem-solving skills, and holding the belief that a person can do something that will help them to manage their feelings and to cope. Resilient people are also more likely to seek help and to be connected with others, such as family and friends. When we feel we belong to something larger than ourselves, it’s easier to develop and tap into our resources, and to feel safe doing so.
We live in very divisive times, and it’s easy to become disconnected. We’re afraid to depend on any one or any thing, so we become isolated and lonely. We could be in a large group of people, and still lack any meaningful connection. In our “every man for himself,” or “woman for herself,” culture, we learn that asking for help is a sign of weakness. We’re probably happy – perhaps thrilled – when we can help someone else, but God forbid I should ask for myself. We’ve heard the joke, “How many Jewish grandmothers does it take to change a light bulb?” “Don’t worry about me, I’ll sit in the dark.” It’s sadly funny not just because it stereotypes Jewish grandmothers, but because it’s true of all of us who have ever turned down an offer of assistance that we really could have used.
We humans are members of a social species; we don’t derive our strength from rugged individualism but from our collective ability to plan, communicate and work together. Each of us needs and wants to be someone on whom others can depend. That can’t happen unless we’re willing to depend on others, whether it’s something as seemingly trivial as picking something up for us at the supermarket, or cooking a meal if we’re not well, or driving us to an appointment.
Each of us needs to say hi-nay-nee, Here I am, I’m ready. My behavior may not always be exemplary, but my heart is in the right place. Help me embrace who I am, and let go of who I think I should be. Grant me the ability to cultivate the courage to be imperfect, and to live with a sense of purpose, meaning and perspective. Help me to be resilient. As author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive, and go do it, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
As we spend today in prayer and supplication, asking God’s forgiveness for ourselves, our community, and all who are in need of forgiveness, may we remember to include ourselves in those prayers.