David Bigge April 6, 2020
When I attended Hebrew School as a child, there were two possible answers when the teacher called our names while taking attendance. We could say “ani po,” which literally means “I am here.” Or we could say “hineini,” which is an old biblical way to say “I am here,” like using old English “thees” and “thous.” But it also means more than “I am here,” and it is a central part of the Passover story.
“Hineini” comes from the base word “hinei.” “Hinei” can mean “here,” but the best translation of “hinei,” in keeping with its biblical use, is the English word “behold.” Most people know the word “hinei” from the song “Hinei Mah Tov”: “hinei” means “behold,” “mah” means “what,” and “tov” means “good,” so “Hinei Mah Tov” means “behold what is good” when we sit together. If you take that same word “hinei” and tack on the “ni” from the word “ani” (which means I or me), you get the word “hineini.”
So “hineini” means more than just “I am here.” It means “Behold! It is I!” “Ani po” is a simple description of where you are; “hineini” is a command followed by a proclamation. It is a heroic statement.
What does the word “hineini” have to do with Passover? Let us quickly recap the beginning of the Passover story. Moses was a Jewish baby who was saved by his mother from the Pharoah’s edict that all first-born Jewish boys be killed. His mother puts him in a floating crib and sends him down the river, where he is found by the Pharoah’s daughter, who adopts him and raises him in the palace as a member of the royal family. Later, as a young man, Moses sees a guard beating a Jewish slave. Moses kills the guard and runs away to the countryside, where he takes up life as a shepherd.
One day, while Moses is tending his flock, he sees a bush on fire that calls his name. When I taught this lesson in Sunday School, I would ask the children how they would react if, one day while playing outside at recess, a bush caught fire and started talking to them. Most say they would find a teacher or other responsible adult, which is of course the correct answer. Others say they would hide or run away.
When God called to Moses, he had no teacher to find. And although he could have done so, he does not run, and he does not hide. He looks at the burning bush calling his name and replies “hineini” – “Behold! It is I!”
This is not the only time the word “hineini” is used in the Bible. According to online sources, the word “hineini” appears 178 times in the Old Testament, usually in response to God calling to someone. In the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac, for example, Abraham says the word three times – the first when God calls on Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the second when Isaac calls to Abraham with questions, and the third before the angel stops Abraham from committing the sacrifice. In each instance, Abraham says “hineini” to the calling of his name. There is also an interesting counter-example: when Adam and Eve have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, God searches for Adam in the garden. Does Adam say “hineini?” No – Adam hides, at least initially.
The difference between Moses and Abraham, on the one hand, and Adam on the other, shows us the reason why God needs to call to us at all. The God that many of us believe in is omniscient. And yet over and over again, when the biblical God needs to deliver a message, God calls to us first, as if searching for us, as if we are hard to find. This is a very curious habit for an all-knowing God who presumably knows exactly where we are. (Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote an entire book around this theme called “God In Search of Man.”).
The reason that God calls our name is not that God cannot find us, or needs to get our attention. God calls to us because God needs to hear our response – before anything else can happen in our hero story, before God can tell us our mission, we need to take responsibility, to be step up, to say “hineini.” These interactions are not about God calling to us, they are about us being present enough to listen, hearing the call, and being brave enough to answer it.
Thus the story of Passover is not about God liberating the Jews from slavery. Or at least, it’s not just about that. It is about a hero – Moses – who saw the burning fire of injustice, who heard his name called, and who answered God with a resounding “hineini” when he was called. Drawing from this story, a Passover season exercise is to think about all of the ways that God may be calling to us, and to be brave enough to say “hineini” just like Moses did.
Of course, God does not necessarily call to us with a burning bush. Sometimes an equally big event calls for our obvious response. But sometimes God calls to us in little everyday interactions, when we hear our names called quietly in our hearts. When we are called upon to do some small act of kindness, or to be inconvenienced in some way. Whether God calls our names loudly or quietly, it usually means doing something hard, or dull, or annoying. I once heard that good deeds do not count as mitzvot if we actually enjoy doing them. Mitzvot are supposed to be difficult. But when the opportunity for a mitzvah presents itself, we are supposed to say “hineini” anyway. Certainly it would have saved Moses a whole lot of time, effort, and heartache to ignore the burning bush. But Moses said “hineini.”
There are so many ways that this congregation says “hineini.” The founding mothers, who heard the call to start IFFP, said “hineini.” All of the board members, past and present, who have dedicated so much time and energy to keep the group going. The Sunday School teachers, who heard the call to pass on what they know to our children. The musicians who take the time to prepare the music for each Gathering. The Tikkun Olam groups – especially the environmental working group, which is answering the call of a world on fire. All of these IFFP members have said “hineini” when called.
It is worth emphasizing that God called only to Moses to liberate the Jews from slavery. He did not call on Moses’s neighbors or his friends. He called Moses because that was the right person for that particular job at that particular moment. It is important to keep this in mind in order to provide ourselves with a measure of grace. Not everyone is called upon to be the hero in every story. We are all built differently, with different concerns, interests, and skills. You do not have to march in the streets for every issue, no matter how noble or important. You do not have to volunteer for everything at your kids’ school. My family members and friends hear different calls to action than I do. But when our hearts tell us that we are being called, the Passover story tells us not to ignore it. We cannot say that there is no time, that it is too inconvenient, or that someone else will take care of it. We say “hineini,” like Moses.
This writing should have concluded there, but although I have taught this lesson in Sunday School for many years, I am only finalizing this blog post in April 2020. As of this writing, we are all home due to COVID-19, away from school, away from work, and away from each other. It is a good time for mindfulness, and it is a good time for listening. Am I being called to do something now? Maybe some of us are called to something monumental, like the doctors who have come out of retirement to assist in the medical response. But most of us do not have those skills. Still, we still may be called to do some small act of kindness, to call our parents or friends who may want to hear from us more often, to arrange for food delivery for someone who is sick, to ease the burden of coworkers in some way, to dedicate more time and patience to our children, to sing a song of comfort. If God is calling, this season of Passover is the time to say “hineini.”