Many of us know the old joke: Why is it when I talk to God it’s called prayer, but when God talks to me, it’s called schizophrenia? We are rightfully suspect when someone makes the claim that he or she has been spoken to by God. But as we close this secular year of 2015 at the same time we close the book of Genesis, we look back at the fifty chapters and can’t help noticing that God speaks to many of our biblical leaders at times of vulnerability and struggle. God tasks them with the job of transformation, both of self and nation, and God waits for a response. And the response is often Hineni: I am fully present in this moment in time and poised to take on my assignment.
The Hebrew word “hineni” is translated in many different ways. It suggests one’s presence in a situation, particularly one freighted with tension and responsibility. Abraham said it when God asked him to bind Isaac and once again in response to his son. Jacob answered the call of an angel after he had a dream about his livestock and God called him back to the land of Israel where he could dream of higher things. Joseph said it when Jacob asked him to see how his brothers were fairing. Moving beyond Genesis, Moses said it at the burning bush. Samuel said it when God stood over him, waiting for Samuel to eclipse his mentor in leadership. Isaiah said it when God was searching for a leader and volunteered himself with the beautiful words above: “Here I am. Send me.” It’s as if in that one word, Isaiah and those before him were saying, “I am ready to do great things.”
Hineni connotes a readiness and acceptance of a mission or task that often portends danger. It does not appear as often as one might suspect it would in the Hebrew Bible. It appears in three readings that frame the High Holiday liturgy, a time when being present is particularly consequential and important. Sometimes it’s a call that God gives to a human being when no one else is present, as in Genesis 22:1 or Exodus 3:4. But it doesn’t only have to be God calling. Sometimes it is the response of a human being to the call of an angel or messenger, as in Genesis 22:11or 31:11. Sometimes it’s said in response to a parent as in Genesis 27:1 or 37:18. Sometimes, as in the book of Esther, one human being - in this case Mordechai to Esther - calls out to another to grow in leadership and influence.
We tend to focus on the response to a call rather the request itself. But the Bible invites us to invite. In other words, if you want to get someone to do something, you have to ask. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. It’s also who you ask and how. When you recruit someone to a task, you want to use his or her name to make the argument for uniqueness. It is no coincidence that in several call texts, God or an angel doubles the name: Abraham, Abraham. Moses, Moses, Samuel, Samuel - as if to say, it’s you and only you. And the call needs to be specific to a task so that when the magic word Hineni is said, it is said with full recognition of the momentousness and consequences of what lies ahead. And a call has to be just that: a call. It’s the singling out of someone for something special, a selection. It’s the power of invitation. The act of calling itself is the message behind a powerful midrash:
The rabbis said: You find that when God gave the Torah to Moses, He gave it to him after ‘calling.’ How do we know this? Since it is said, "And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mount; and Moses went up’" (Exodus 19:20). Also Moses our teacher, when he came to repeat the Torah to Israel, said to them: "Just as I received the Torah with ‘calling’ so too will I hand it over to God’s children with ‘calling.’ "From where do we know this? From what is written in the context: “And Moses called to all of Israel and said to them...” [Midrash Rabba, Deuteronomy 7:8]
When you are called to a hineni moment, you begin to understand the importance of the invitation and then should be able to create those moments for others. Because God called Moses, Moses understood that when he gave our people the commandments, he also needed to call us. The formality of the invitation serves as a validation that a big and wide possibility has been put before us. We must choose our answer carefully.
As we say goodbye to the pages of Genesis for now, we are left with an enduring question. What is our hineni moment? What should we be doing of great purpose in this coming year, and how will we answer? Perhaps we too will have the courage and the spiritual audacity to say, as Isaiah did long ago: Here I am. Send me.