Shortly I will be chanting the Hineni prayer, a prayer that is known as the cantor's prayer. You may ask, Why is this prayer in particular called the cantor's prayer? Doesn't she chant prayers for us all year round? Of course I do— yet this prayer, that I chant by myself, is about my role as your cantor, in which I ask that I be successful as your שָׂלִיחַ צִיבּוּר shàliakh tsibur, as your emissary, in pleading for mercy on your behalf.
The prayer begins in the first person, “הִנְנִי Hineni” — meaning “Here I am”.
A more common way of saying ‘here’ in Hebrew is the word פֹּה poh:
“אֲנִי פֹּה ’Ani poh” — “I'm here”.
So for instance:
In my elementary school —at the Yeshiva Rabbi Moses Soloveichik—,
when the teachers would call roll,
we would answer “Poh”— as in:
You can feel the difference even in the English between saying “I'm here” and “Here I am.”
Many of you may have had the experience of hanging out with someone, maybe your kids: You're having lunch with them, and in the middle of your conversation they answer their cell phones, or they receive a text they have to answer, or maybe even they send out a tweet saying “Hey everybody what's up I'm here having lunch with my mom [or dad].”
So they're ‘here’, but not completely. They're physically present —they're פֹּה poh— but they're not הִנֵ<!ֽ>נִי hinéni, not ‘Here’ with a capital ה Héi’.
Hineni is about the attitude and bearing of the entire person — their emotional and spiritual presence.
The Bible recognizes the importance of this word: It occurs only eight times — three of those times occur in the second-day reading for Rosh Hoshanah Torah portion. Each time the word hineni is used, it signifies a turning point, a potentially life-changing moment requiring decision, action, and resolution.
In the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, right at the beginning of chapter 22 of the portion known as וַיֵרָא Vayérà’, just before God is about to give Abraham his instructions about taking Isaac up on the mountain, God calls out “Abraham”, and Abraham answers with “הִנֵ<!ֽ>נִי Hinéni.” God, hearing that Abraham is fully present and ready, then gives his instructions: “Take your beloved son and sacrifice him up on the mountain…”
Up on the mountain, as Abraham gathers the wood, the firestone, and the knife, but not a ram, Isaac, wondering what's going on, calls out to Abraham: “אָבִי ‘Àvi?” — “Father?”
Once again Abraham says “הִנֵ<!ֽ>נִי Hinéni”— he tells Isaac that he trusts that God will show him the ram at the appropriate time.
And finally, the last call at the most awful moment of all: As he is about to lift his knife to slaughter his son, God calls out —twice this time— “Abraham, Abraham,” and Abraham answers “הִנֵ<!ֽ>נִי Hinéni” — “Here I am”, and God shows him the ram to be slaughtered.
Think about one more significant moment in biblical history, when God calls out to Moses from the burning bush: “Moses, Moses,” and the astounded confused Moses answers: “הִנֵ<!ֽ>נִי Hinéni.”
So if you say to me this morning “Linda, Linda,” it's a kind of spiritual roll-call: “Linda, are you present? Is your heart present? Is your spirit present? — Are you open to the possibility that in your chanting of the prayers, one sweet note might have the potential to be a life-changing experience for someone here today, that your singing might offer solace and inspiration to others?”— and I have to answer that call: “הִנֵ<!ֽ>נִי Hinéni.”
Why does the cantor need to say the Hineni at this point in the service? We are kind of at the halfway point: Often it gets hot in here this time of year, and I've been standing for a couple of hours on and off already; so the Hineni becomes reminder that when I pray as your שָׂלִיחַ צִיבּוּר shàliakh tsibur —your singing spiritual emissary—, I can't let myself be distracted by discomforts or let my thoughts stray to thinking about the chicken soup and kasha I have waiting for me at home for my lunch. I need to be fully focused and present for this awesome responsibility you have given me.
So what qualifications must a cantor have for this task? According to this prayer, a cantor must have a lifetime well spent, a sweet voice, be personable, and have a beard that is fully grown.
Three out of four ain't bad. These days, we interpret the fully grown beard to mean someone —either male or female— who is old enough and mature enough to appreciate the great privilege and enormity of this task of being your representative.
Significantly, what's not required is that the cantor be more righteous than the congregants on whose behalf she or he is praying. Quite the contrary.
Because it's such an awesome responsibility and such an exalted, unique position in the community, there's a danger that cantors might think they are somehow more special, that they got the job because they are a better person, than the members of the community they represent. Not only am I not more righteous, but according to the opening words of the prayer —“הִנְנִי הֶעָנִי מִמַּ<!ֽ>עַשׂ Hineni hè‘àni mima‘as” — “Here I am impoverished in my deeds”—, I've done nothing special to merit this privilege, and even though “בָּ<!ֽ>אתִי לַעֲמֹד וּלְהִתְחַנֵּן Bà’ti la‘amod ulehitkhanén” — “I've come to petition on your behalf”, “אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁאֵינִי כְדַאי וְהָגוּן לְכַךְ ’af ‘al pi shè’éini chedai v'hàgun lechach” — “I am unworthy and unqualified to do so” because I am a person who “חוֹטֵא וּפוֹשֵׁעַ choté’ ufoshéa‘” — “a person who makes plenty of mistakes”, and I ask that you not be blamed for any of them.
So, according to the Hineni, the cantor must be humble, full of humility, as she takes on this role.
And yet even being humble has its perils, as in this old Jewish joke that shows the other side of humility: They tell of a village synagogue, during the High Holy Days, where the rabbi prostrates himself on the floor, saying, “God, before You I am nothing.” Immediately, the richest man in town prostrates himself on the floor, saying, “God, before You I am nothing.” Right after that, the town beggar prostrates himself on the floor, saying, “God, before You I am nothing.” Whereupon the rich man whispers to the rabbi, “Look who thinks he's nothing.”
So the cantor must be humble without being overbearingly and narcissistically so. And the way to guard against that comes in the first line of the prayer — the cantor has to be נִרְעַשׁ וְנִפְחַד nir‘ash v'nifkhad — trembling and afraid.
Another story: The chassidim tell of a learned man who lost his income and was looking for another way to make a living. Members of his community suggest that he become their cantor for the high holidays; they knew he had a lovely voice. But he felt afraid; felt that he wasn't worthy, so he went to his rebbe and told him of his dilemma — and the rebbe said BE afraid and pray.
So Indeed I am נִרְעַשׁ וְנִפְחַד nir‘ash v'nifkhad — trembling and afraid.
I'm afraid of catching a cold the day before. I'm afraid I will start too high and my voice won't reach the highest notes. I'm afraid that it will crack and I will sing a sour note.
In other words, I'm afraid that my voice will let me and you down. I'm also afraid that my level of faith won't be as deep as yours. I'm afraid that in spite of myself, I will get distracted and won't pray with the with the full intention that your prayers deserve. I am afraid that even if I sing well and am fully present, you will still feel, for whatever reason, that I haven't fully represented your prayers, that you won't be inspired to deepen your own prayers, that you will be disappointed.
And yet… is it all up to me? What is your role in this while I am chanting?
I remember when I was much younger, in my 20's, and singing in coffee houses, where I would need to sing above the chatter of the audience, the clatter of dishes, and the sounds of the cappuccino machine— I remember how hard it was to get my heart behind my singing— I would look for the one person who was really listening, one person who might reflect back in his or her face understanding and appreciation, show that they were moved by my words and my music.
It's this reflecting back that I need from you.. You have to say Hineni back to me; you have to be listening as intensely as I'm singing.
This Hineni has to be a totally mutual, even as our inner experiences may be different. You cannot sit back or be distracted any more than I can. You have to actively listen —We are in a reciprocal relationship— as the prayer says, “וְאַל יֵבוֹשׁוּ בִי וְאַל אֵבוֹשׁ בָּם Ve’al yévoshu vi, ve’al ’évosh bàm” — “Let them not be ashamed of me and let me not be ashamed of them.”
We're all on the line here. Rabbi Stephen Pik-Nathan says: “Together we are all saying ‘Hineni’ when we are called.” We have to see ourselves as if we were at the beginning of a potentially life changing journey as we come into the New Year. Hineni is a statement of a promise to begin something.
What might you be saying “hineni” to? What commitment might you be ready to make to yourself and to your community? Perhaps you don't know, but are you open to finding out?
You are not alone. We have each other to lean on. Again, Rabbi Stephen Pik-Nathan says “We have to see ourselves as part of something greater than ourselves, something that is meant to improve us and the world around us.”
Frankly, I am in awe of my own part in all this and you may ask, How did I even get here? — How did I come to be the one to facilitate this journey? In answer, I'd like to end with a story from my own childhood: