I am sitting at my office at work, attempting to finish my sermon for the following evening. I receive a phone call from the babysitter at home. Eytan, my 2 year old son, is laying by the sliding glass door, crying because all he wants to do is go outside. Micah, my three month old baby, has been screaming for forty-five minutes straight. He is tired, wanting to return to sleep, but having no luck. I try to work whatever magic I can from a phone call away and hang up with the babysitter.
My heart sinks and the onslaught of guilty feelings begin. “Why am I not there for them?” I wonder as I return to my sermon, hoping to still find the inspiration I had before. And then I am left with a familiar voice in my head questioning, always questioning, “How can I devote the time and energy I long to give to my congregation and still be there in the way I need to be for my sons? If only half of my effort is going into each, will I ever feel satisfied or am I just setting my self up for failure?” My questions are not new and are not unique. They echo the struggle of parents everywhere.
In the text of the Torah, there is a word our ancestors used to convey to others that they were available, ready and present. That word was “hineni” or “here I am.” Rabbi Harold Schulweis describes hineni as “the initial willingness to respond to the other, the readiness to act on the others behalf no matter what is being asked.”[i] And this is where I face my biggest struggle. Am I truly able to respond with the word hineini in my life? Can I ever say to another I am ready no matter what is being asked? Can I be there in this way for congregants? Can I be there in this way for my sons?
Our ancestors responded time and again to the call of God with the response, “hineini.” However, there are only two instances where a parent responds to his child in this way. The first is the response of Abraham to Isaac during the Akedah. As Abraham brings his son up to the top of the mountain, preparing to sacrifice him at God’s request, Isaac turns to his father and says, “Father.” Abraham responds, “Hineni.”[ii] The second is the response of Isaac to his son Jacob. After Isaac instructs his older son, Esau, to prepare a meal and come to his father to receive his blessing, Jacob returns instead. Jacob says, “My father.” And Isaac responds, “Hineni.”[iii]
Remarkably, these instances are not times of great certainty. Instead, they are both periods of upheaval and questioning. Abraham struggles with an impossible conundrum: losing his son or responding to the will of God. Isaac questions the identity of the son who has returned, knowing “the voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”[iv]
In these examples, it is almost as if the response is less of a sure statement, “I am here and I am ready,” and more of a reassurance to the parent. Hineni is what that parent needs to say in the moment as much as what the child needs to hear. “I am not sure what tomorrow brings, but I am your parent and I am here for you.”
So maybe that is where my answer lies. I do not know how I will be present in all of the areas in my life in the way that I want to be. I cannot know what tomorrow will bring. But, I am here for you.
[i] Rabbi Harold Schulweis “One Hineini Against Another,” Hineini in Our Lives, Norman J. Cohen, (Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003) 163.
[ii] Genesis 22:6
[iii] Genesis 27:18
[iv] Genesis 27:22