At Mishkan’s 5783 Kol Nidre service, Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann delivered a sermon inviting us to call out “Hineni!” with Moshe and be fully present in every moment. If you have been moved by any of Mishkan’s High Holy Days services, we encourage you to donate to our High Holidays Campaign.
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Read a transcript of this sermon on the Mishkan Blog.
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Produced by Mishkan Chicago. Music composed, produced, and performed by Kalman Strauss.
In an iconic moment of the Prophet Moses’ early life, he is out tending sheep in the desert. Something catches his eye. “אָסֻֽרָה־נָּ֣א וְאֶרְאֶ֔ה אֶת־הַמַּרְאֶ֥ה הַגָּדֹ֖ל הַזֶּ֑ה he says: Let me turn and look at this incredible sight: this bush appears to be on fire,” he exclaims, “But it’s not burning up!” He had to have been staring at that thing for at least a few minutes in order to realize something extraordinary was happening. But then, something even more extraordinary happens: he hears the voice of God, calling to him from the bush.
And God saw that Moses had turned to look, and God said, “Moshe.” And Moshe responded, “Hineni.” Here I am. Lay it on me.
Hineni: the biblical way of saying, “You have my full attention.”
Try it with me: Hineni! God calls out a name– Avraham, Moshe, Shmuel, and they respond, “Hineni!” And when it’s clear that God has your full attention, God offers instructions that will change your lives, and the lives of others. This conversation, for example, between God and Moses, is where God first introduces Godself to Moses, and instructs him decades after he’d run away from Egypt, to go back to Egypt, to face Pharaoh, and to free his people, the most important assignment of his life.
Can you imagine if Moses had had an iPhone, when he saw that bush? He probably wouldn’t have noticed it in the first place bc he’d just be scrolling TikTok videos. We can agree that in our world, today, it is very likely that even Moses would have missed a defining moment of his own life, and a moment that would change the course of history. Thank God he was paying attention.
I worry that there are burning bush moments around us all the time, and we’re missing them, and we’re missing them at a cost. And I’m certainly not the first to comment on it, far from it, but on this, the holiest night of the year, I think the quality of our attention — where and to whom we give it, what gets in the way, how we sustain it and grow it for the things and people that matter most in life… this is the spiritual work of our time. It’s worth exploring together tonight.
Let’s start with the basics – the declaration Jews around the world make multiple times a day: Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad – “Hear, Oh People Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One.” “Shema, Yisrael – Hear, Oh Israel!” Why, what makes listening, hearing, such a spiritually essential act? Rabbi Darby Leigh, who happens to be deaf, says this isn’t just “Hear, O Israel,” (pointing to your ears) rather it’s PAY ATTENTION (ASL for “pay attention”). If you get nothing else from this tradition it’s this: the way toward God is by paying attention. Which then puts the next line of that passage, v’ahavta et adonai eloheicha b’chol levav’kha u’vekhol naf’shecha uv’chol me’odekha, into a whole new light. Pay attention! Pay LOVING attention. With your whole heart, your whole spirit, your whole strength. This is an exotation against multitasking, not because it makes you a bad person… but because it isn’t how to hear, to pay attention, to God’s voice in a moment.
Because you can hear God’s voice in the trees or in traffic, on a mountain top or drinking a Mountain Dew in a 7/11, with people you love most and with people you mostly can’t stand – if you are hineni, fully present with attention and heart. And of course a hineni moment when you’re at the gas station and you actually smile and make eye contact and say thank you to the person ringing you up – is different from the hineni of being present in mind and body and heart when you’re listening to a good friend share what they’re going through, or going for a walk in the woods, and is different from the hineni of showing up at a protest, or the hineni of remembering to look out the driver side mirror before you open your car door, and different from the hineni of playing with your dog or your kids or your spouse.
The rabbis who created our worship service about 2,000 years ago, cherry picked this mitzvah, this mantra, Shema Yisrael, of the 613 in the Torah, to put at the center, to have us say this in the morning and evening, and before going to bed every night, to be said on your deathbed along with your last confession, and tomorrow night we’ll close out Yom Kippur with it. The Torah, and the rabbis who constructed our tradition out of the Torah, knew how hard it is to bring our full attention to our lives– I doubt they could have imagined just how hard it could get– but they knew that everything that matters rests on how we pay attention. And what is our life, if not the sum of its moments, and how we show up for them?
The way we consider this question on Yom Kippur is by rehearsing our death. I know it might sound morbid, but approaching death is one of the most reliable ways to put your life into focus, to ask ourselves what really matters. We rehearse for our death by wearing simple clothes, by abstaining from life-affirming activities like eating and drinking and shopping and sex. I suggest that at this point, you put your phone on airplane mode or keep it in a bag and abstain from using it as well not because it’s unholy, but because it can be just another way we can distract ourselves from hineni presence. And Yom Kippur is about clearing away the distractions so that we can spend the day reflecting, as a person on their deathbed would reflect, on their life, how they spent it, and what they might do differently if they’d only thought about it earlier.
Rabbi Alan Lew describes that as a hospice chaplain he often witnessed the most ordinary people acquiring the ability to sum up the truth of their lives, as death approached, often in a single heartbreaking sentence. “I married the wrong man. I lived without love all my life,” one woman told him. “I never wrote the book that I was meant to write,” a dying man told him. Rabbi Lew writes, “We Jews aren’t supposed to wait for the end before asking ourselves these questions, because by then it might be too late. So the rabbis wanted to bring us to the point of existential crisis, so we must ask these questions at least once a year, at least on this solemn day: What is my life really about?”
If we’re really taking these kinds of questions seriously, they can lead to actually helping us make teshuvah. Teshuvah, means turning, like what Moses does at the bush. Teshuvah can also be turning toward, turning around, turning back, turning away, in response to something that is signaling for your attention… Teshuvah is a deliberate, conscious focus on doing something better, and is the primary obsession of the high holidays. Teshuvah is our ability to confront these questions and rather than delaying, deferring, ignoring, denying, distracting, things we’re all very good at… teshuvah is when we actually say hineni, we make a change, switch course, try a new dynamic in a relationship, get a therapist, start marathon training or realize that you never really liked running and to try something else, maybe rowing, maybe birding.
One of the most inspiring things I ever hear as a rabbi is when a Builder tells me, like Barb did this year, that you finally giving notice at job that was making you miserable, or Rabbi Steven, who shared with us last week about the painful but necessary decision to end a relationship; or Kathy, who opened up a women’s co-working space, fulfilling her lifelong dream (Altar– check it out). For over 35 of you just this year as part of Mishkan’s Exploring Judaism class, saying hineni was turning toward and embracing Judaism as your spiritual path this year (I know there are many more of you in the room for whom that’s also true). The point is saying hineni and really turning, with your whole heart, can change everything.
“Make teshuvah one day before your death,” Rabbi Eliezer says in Pirke Avot. “But you don’t know when that be!” his students say. “Ah, he says, then make teshuvah today!” What are you waiting for?
Now, I believe that all of us are doing our best, most of the time. I think it’s for that reason that we begin the night quoting God in the Torah saying to the Jewish people, who screwed up, “Salachti Ki D’varekha – I forgive you.” But as the Mishnah says, “Yom Kippur atones for sins between people and God… but does not atone for sins between people.” So let me put a finer point on this discussion about our attention: the issue isn’t how we show up for God, it is how we show up for ourselves and one another– which, let’s be clear, IS showing up for God. Let me say that again, how we show up for people is how we show up for God.
We’ll see this idea front and center tomorrow as we read the Book of Isaiah, as Isaiah reminds us it’s not enough just to fast– we need to share our food with the hungry. And it’s not enough to make sacrifices in the Temple– we need to make sacrifices to care for the most vulnerable among us. And the Torah knew this 4,000 years ago, Isaiah knew this 2,500 years ago, and our sages 2,000 years ago, and we know this, and we still don’t live it. Why not??
In the early 1970s two Princeton behavioral researchers wanted to know the answer to that question– what leads some people to help others, to say hineni, and what gets in the way? So they ask a group of seminary students to teach a class as part of a study, and then send them to a different part of campus to complete the study after teaching the class. Some of them taught on the Christian parable of the good samaritan, a story in which a simple good person stops on the side of the road to help a needy stranger, unlike the religious authorities in the story, who pass over him. Having just finished giving a lecture about the good samaritan, the students they’re already late for the 2nd part of the study, and to get across campus quickly. Actually some are told they’re very late, some are told they are cutting it close, and some aren’t told anything. On their way to the second site as they walk down a narrow alley there is a man on the ground, moaning and coughing, clearly in need of help, who of course is part of the study. For the students in big hurry, 90% of them passed the needy man by, in some cases stepping over him to get where they were going. Of the students in a medium hurry, over 60% of them passed him by… and of the ones without a time constraint, only 40% passed by– 2/3 of people actually stopped to help when they didn’t feel like were in a rush. Fascinatingly, the lofty subject matter the students taught had no impact on whether or not these religious leaders in training stopped to help the struggling man. The only variable that mattered was how much of a hurry they thought they were in. The researches concluded, among things, that “ethics becomes a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases.”
That sentence gives me chills: “Ethics becomes a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases.”
Because how many of us feel busy all the time. While you might imagine that had you been one of those seminary students who stopped, who cared, who said to hell with being late, there’s someone here in need. The sad but real answer is that the vast majority of us will most of the time fail that test, will fail to be fully present in that moment – we may be physically present, and even emotionally present– we may make a sympathetic face, as if to say I see you, but I’ve gotta go – we will fail to be morally present. We imagine that surely there will be someone else in less of a hurry, who can meet the need in front of us. We imagine that there will be more moments for us to pay full attention to friends and children, there will be someone else who stops for the person at the intersection or maybe we’ll get ‘em next time, or someone else with more money will donate to the organizations that we care about but haven’t really done much for. Someone else will say hineni, we think to ourselves. It’ll be ok.
And sometimes it is. Sometimes those hineni moments ask us to take risks, to do things that are not just inconvenient but uncomfortable or even challenge our sense of safety. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, who has been the Chief Rabbi of Moscow for the past 22 years, recently fled Russia, because he is outspoken in his opposition to Putin’s war on Ukraine, and because he lives with the knowledge that the last time the rabbi of his synagogue spoke out against the government he was shot by the secret police. Sometimes saying hineni means moving your physical body out of harm’s way so that you can be emotionally and morally present for the moment. And sometimes, it may mean taking real risks. This summer when our group visited Yad VaShem, the holocaust museum in Jersualem, we took special note of the trees that line the path to the museum, each tree celebrating a righteous gentile, someone who didn’t have to help Jews, but risked their own safety and well-being, in order to save lives where they could, not because they would one day be honored with a ceremony and tree… but because they were looking up, and they could have looked back down – most people around them did. But they instead said hineni. I am not too busy or too scared to help.
And if you ask most of those people how they came to be such heroes they’d say, Hero, I’m no hero, I was just doing what any good person would do. But unfortunately we know that most good people will fail the test, if it means being late, or defying orders. So how can we succeed in paying the kind of attention that the world needs from us? That we need from each other?
In study after study that examines when and why people make the right moral choice, there is one thing that can affect the outcome, even for the groups most pressured to rush or to go on with the experiment, and that is, that if you tell the subjects advance, this is a moral test, and you will be judged on your response to the study. as Rabbi Sharon Brous says it: Moral conundrum ahead. When we believe we’re being evaluated on our choices, we tend to make better choices. Perhaps this is why Rabbi Yochanan in the Talmud, says the there are three books open during the High Holidays, says One book for the Tzadikim, or completely good, One book for the Rasha’im, the completely wicked, and then one final book for the Benonim, the folks in the middle, about whom the philosopher Maimonides writes, their deeds are balanced equally at the cusp of either good or bad. Meaning your next choice pushes you either into the category of the tzadik, or the rashah, and you will be judged accordingly. On HaShannah the Tzadikim, and the Resha’im, the wholly good and the wholly wicked, have their fate sealed, but for all of us who are neither full saints, nor full sinners, the book for us middling people, remains open through Yom Kippur, for us to make a case for ourselves to be written up along with the righteous.
And I wonder how we might live differently if we thought that this moment, and now this moment, and now this moment, is not just a moment passing that we’ll be able to make up later, but is a hineini moment, a moment on which we’re being judged not only our physical and emotional presence, tho that’s a good start, but also our moral presence. Because the assumption that we don’t matter to the people around us, that our hineni won’t be missed by the people around us… this is the difference between the world as it is and the world as it could be.
The good news is, we know how to do this. We know how to drop everything if a friend in need calls us from the side of the road. We know how to tend lovingly to a sick kid or pet or partner. We know how to cancel the afternoon to attend the funeral of a friend or family member. We know how to look into another person’s eyes – someone we love or every now and again a complete stranger – and see their humanity, their pain, and how we can help. We do know how to pay attention. We just need to practice.
I’m not talking about this tonight because I’ve got it figured out. I’m terrible at this. Every night when my kids come home I’m at my computer, and I’m still sitting at my computer after they come up from their bath, and half the time we’re eating dinner together I’m surreptitiously checking Slack, What’sApp, Email, Facebook messenger, my bank account, Twitter, the New York Times, Wordle, shall I go on? [anyone want to confess tonight, your online distraction of choice?] And I know better! I know that anything happening online can probably wait til later or til tomorrow, and that the time I spend with my family is precious and short every single day. But man, almost every night I find myself twitching to do things that hit that dopamine center in the brain, that help stoke that feeling of busyness, and immediately in my mind I’m justifying– they’ll still be there in 5 minutes. Or tomorrow. They can wait.
But I know better. And this year I want to be written in the book of Tzadikim, the book of the righteous. Which means I need to reclaim my attention. I wonder if you do too.
So we need a plan. Because a vague intention is no match for the pervasive culture we live in that treats busyness like a virtue… and as we’ve established, “ethics becomes a luxury as the speed of life increases.” So if we care at all about the people around us and the world around us, our plan has to include slowing down. I don’t even necessarily mean doing less– although that might help– I mean, slowing down so you can look up, so you can recover a sense of spaciousness in the midst of your busy life, that allows you to look around, notice where you are, and bring forth loving attention, your hineni. We get better at what we practice– and we practice being busy all week. So we need space to practice presence, to practice looking up.
Let’s start with Yom Kippur. The next 25 hours is just this time, a space to practice moving more mindfully, listening more, paying closer attention to the people around you, and to the feelings inside of you.
And if you’re like me, and seriously doubt that one day of practice will sustain change over the course of your year (even if it’s a really good day of practice– it’s sort of like exercising once and expecting the results to last all year), I invite you to join me in leaning into another Jewish practice of slowing down, much more regularly, the practice of Shabbat.
My intention is to spend more of Shabbat doing shabbat. Resting, reading, going for walks, having conversations over leisurely dinner tables with a handful of people, singing, doing services with Mishkan, with you (hope to see more of you in the new year!)… not stacking the day with activities… but allowing for spaciousness one day a week. Lighting candles, making blessings over food and wine, inventing blessings for things that I give myself time on Shabbat to enjoy. Making a point to stop and smell the roses. Once a week, with the hope it spills over into how I live the rest of my life.
You get better at what you practice– and all week all our lives we practice busy-ness and filling space. So how revolutionary to have a full a day every a week to build another set of muscles, the hineni muscles, which feel intrinsically good when we can actually relax into them, but remember, these are also the ones that are responsible for helping us feel like we have the spaciousness in our lives to show up for people in need. These are the muscles that remind us that know how to pay loving attention, without a crisis to demand it of us.
Every moment is a choice — a very narrow bridge. And unless you’re a full on saint or a full on sinner, the book is still open for all of us to make the next right choice in the moment that presents itself, and the next right choice, and the next, and the next.
So let’s begin now. Yom Kippur, 5783, Tuesday October 4, 2022 9 pm. How will you look up, be present, say hineni, to the invitation of this day– as you’re here in services, as you walk out of here tonight, as you drive or walk or bike or take the train home, as you wake up again in the morning… if you’re here on site, as you participate in the installations in the hallway or the classes tomorrow afternoon, all of these are here in the service of practicing loving, attentive presence– the foundation for everything else.
Are you here for it? Say it with me: hineni.
G’mar chatimah tovah — may you be inscribed and sealed for life, health, and high quality attention, this year.