Be Hineni

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Joshua Caruso on Yom Kippur morning, 2019.  We encourage you to share comments below, or to post the link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or to share with others by email, to continue the conversations it engenders.

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?” The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.” “Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”[1]

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said, “I made a difference for that one.”

This story, one I have heard and told many times, is actually a very Jewish one. The boy’s actions reflect the message in one of the most famous passages of Jewish wisdom. Rabbi Tarfon said, “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it altogether.”[2]

We can reduce this concept into one word, “Hineni” (Here I Am).

This word, spoken in some of the most important stories in the Torah, is both a call and a response that the responsibility for the future of our world, of our communities, of our faith, and of our souls lies not on some distant mountain or in someone else’s hands. The responsibility for our destiny lies in our ability to be Hineni.

Hineni means “Here I am,” but it bears so much more than just our physical presence. It means that we are wholly present—engaged, intentional, poised to make a difference. When we are Hineni, we are roused and ready to do whatever is asked of us, to take responsibility for what comes next.

What does it take to be Hineni? It isn’t easy.

It requires having the courage to take that first step towards something out of our comfort zone. It takes having the confidence to trust ourselves, to believe that we can handle the unknown. It takes seeing ourselves as deserving of directing our own lives, and capable of making a difference in the lives of others. It takes ignoring the voices we may hear whispering in our ears, “You can’t do it,” or “What you do will never matter anyway.”

My colleague, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, noted the challenge of Hineni, too. He said:

“Hineni is not an easy word to say. It goes against our more natural inclination, to leave it to the next guy, to deflect responsibility by proclaiming ourselves as innocents caught in circumstances beyond our control…we point to a glory day of yesteryear, and in doing so, reveal a toxic pessimism, as if our best days as Jews or Americans are behind us…  It is not that prior generations do not bear responsibility for the circumstances of the present – of course they do. And it is not that history isn’t helpful in understanding the present – of course it is. But none of these tactics of deflecting agency bring us any closer to addressing the calling of our own day. They all function as alibis, excuses, tools of the timid by which we evade the Hineni’s, those things we know we need to do.”[3]

That is why this one word, Hineni, is the most radical and subversive thing to strive to be today in a world that almost dares us to be indifferent.

Our country – indeed, our world – has become a place where it feels like there are miles and miles of problems strewn all about us. Today, we are shattered and scattered into silos of misunderstanding, unable to fathom or relate to those with whom we differ. The rise of antisemitism and the sowing of hatred against so many groups has left us feeling vulnerable even in spaces where we previously felt safe. The warming of our planet is already leading to frightening consequences in the form of extreme weather. Sometimes it feels like we need a MASH unit to triage the many problems that have been left to us and to our children.

The resulting anxiety, depression, and mood of isolation can lead us to feeling too overwhelmed and paralyzed to be Hineni. Yet it is at this moment that being Hineni is most crucial. Perhaps picking up the broken pieces of our fractured world begins with creating order in our own little corner of the universe …like by making your bed. Let me explain.

Four years ago, a Navy admiral fairly unknown to the general public, but recognized in the military world as one of the key people to take down Osama bin Laden, became identified for something much less dramatic, but significant nonetheless: a commencement speech he gave at the University of Texas. Navy Admiral William H. McCraven’s commencement speech to the graduating class of 2014 was so well-received (it went viral on YouTube) that he published a book shortly thereafter.

McRaven’s message: If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.

The good admiral spoke these words:

“Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Vietnam veterans, would show up in my barracks room and the first thing they would inspect was your bed. If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack — that’s Navy talk for bed.

It was a simple task — mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our bed to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that we were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle-hardened SEALs, but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.

If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”[4]

I share this story not to suggest that making your bed might replace any of Judaism’s preexisting commandments – God knows we already have enough of them to do!

But we should pay heed…Admiral McRaven’s words communicate the most fundamental of actions if we are to embrace the call to be Hineni. We first have to care about our environment and ourselves if we are ever going to take longer strides. Just think about it…making your bed envisions a return to it at the end of the day, as if to say, “Hineni – Here I Am, I am ready to step up to what is needed of me…and, at the end of the day I will return from the day’s work, and it will be okay.”

The great prophet, Moses, declared his intention to be Hineni, too.

Moses was shepherding the flock…The angel of God appeared to him in flames of fire blazing out of the middle of the bush.

Moses looked.  The bush was blazing away but it didn’t burn up…

God saw that Moses had stopped to look.

God called to him from out of the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

(Moses) said, “Yes? I’m right here (HINENI)!”[5]

You may already be familiar with this story, but the part we sometimes miss is what occurs just before God calls out to Moses. The text says, “God saw that (Moses) had stopped to look”. Even before Moses uttered the words, “Hineni”, God already knew that the future prophet was ready for the mission to set the Hebrews free. And God was right, as Moses didn’t say, “First tell me what you want and then I’ll decide if I will help.” No, Moses said, “Hineni—I am here, ready to do whatever you ask of me,” before God even made a request. Moses was prepared to embrace the divine mysteries before him. And what a difference he made for the nascent Jewish people!

Being Hineni calls on us to have the presence to stop…look…and to BE present, aware of our own needs, those of the dear ones around us, and those of the larger community.

Connection with Heritage      

Without fail, when I am out in the community people often approach me with a remorseful look, saying, “Rabbi, I know I should be going to temple, but I just haven’t been able to get around to it”. Here’s a Public Service Announcement: I do not keep a record of when you do and do not come to shul. While I love it when you are here, I do not keep a notepad by my bedside to write down the names of who have been naughty or nice!

All joking aside, I do wonder if some of you are reaching for greater meaning in your lives. Do you wish to connect more deeply with a Judaism that beats so passionately within your heart? Do you ever consider getting more involved with our community, or to just sit with the clergy to get something off your chest?

Simply put, as a Jew do you wish to be more Hineni?

In my years as a rabbi I have discovered just how many feel inhibited to be Hineni because of how much they don’t know. It can be disconcerting to have pride in being Jewish, but not to feel authentic in your Judaism. It may be surprising to hear that this is more the rule than the exception.

Jewish legend teaches that the great sage, Rabbi Akiva, knew nothing about Judaism before he had reached middle age. A famous story of the great rabbi goes as follows:

What was the beginning of Rabbi Akiva? They say that he was 40 years old and had not learned a thing.

One time, he was standing at the mouth of the well and said, “Who carved this rock?” They said to him, “The water that consistently falls on it every day.”

They said to him, “Akiva, did you not read (that) water wears away stones?”

Immediately Rabbi Akiva ruled…: Just as the soft sculpts the hard, words of Torah, which are as hard as iron, will all the more so carve my heart/mind, which is but flesh and blood![6]

Like slow and deliberate raindrops, Rabbi Akiva began learning the Aleph-Bet (the Hebrew alphabet) one letter at a time. He became arguably the most influential of our rabbinic sages, leaving a vast legacy of teachings. But his transformation began with taking that first, simple, humble step.

He bravely declared himself, Hineni.

Family and local community

Hineni sometimes requires us to take care of ourselves, to be present for those we love, or even to reach out to those we don’t know.  Last year, at this very service, I introduced our new Shabbat Across Fairmount Temple initiative. The program was a success! Last January, more than 300 members of our community gathered in each other’s homes for Shabbat dinners. This past August, we did it again, with another 250 people participating.  Just think—all those people stepped up to say “Hineni—I will host a Shabbat dinner, even for people I don’t know.” “Hineni—I am willing to be a guest at someone’s Shabbat table, spending an evening with people I may have never met before.”

The numbers are impressive, but the stories behind those numbers are what really moved me. One temple member, who lives alone and had yet to engage with our community in a meaningful way, told me that when she was invited to another member’s home she had the impulse to decline. After all, she thought, what might she add to a dinner table? But she pushed herself to go, and what followed was truly inspiring. She and the others at the table joined together for a joyous Shabbat meal filled with laughter and meaning. In reflecting on her time there, she told me that when she feels alone she keeps that memory with her as a reminder of those connections, and why she needs to push out of her comfort zone. I have heard about other connections that were made during those Shabbat evenings, leading to ongoing relationships and repeated Shabbat dinners with new friends. All it took was taking that first step. (And our next Shabbat Across Fairmount Temple will be January 31!)

Healing the world

There are some who typify Hineni on a much larger scale. One 16-year-old girl responded to the call of our warming planet by spending her school days going on her own to the Swedish Parliament holding a sign that read “School Strike for Climate.” Soon other students engaged in similar protests in their own communities. That led to weekly rallies around the world and one global march that drew millions of people – including some here in Cleveland. Two weeks ago, she admonished those at the United Nations Climate Action Summit with a strong rebuke that revealed her humanity and compassion for the earth.[7] Greta Thunberg said, “Hineni”.   Alright, she didn’t use that word, but she exemplifies that word – she is truly present and prepared to take responsibility for making a difference in this world.

Being Hineni always starts with one small action. It may be as small as making your bed. More often, it starts with determining what change you want to make in your life or in the community, and figuring out what it will take to get there.

What would Hineni look like for you?

  • Is there a relationship that needs to be repaired?
  • Do you need to take better care of yourself?
  • Do you have a friend who is ill and in need of support?
  • Are you distraught over gun violence, or antisemitism, or climate change?

If so, what small step could lead you on a path towards making a difference? What is keeping you from starting down that path?

Rabbi Cosgrove speaks to this moment:

“It is a pointed warning that the tactics of delay may make a person altogether too late. Each and every one of us has pinned to our hearts a list of critical conversations we have avoided, momentous deeds – small or large, acts of personal transformation that have been delayed for no other reason than our pride, our inertia and our unwillingness to take ownership of our lives. As…Rabbi Milton Steinberg once preached, “Yesterday is gone and tomorrow is not yet here and he who waits for the morrow will probably wait forever.”[8]

Like that little boy who saved one starfish at a time, this troubled world could feel as overwhelming as a vast ocean. If you wait to take a step until you are able to save the whole world, you will never make a difference for anyone.

Hineni is a profound way to live. I. Am. Here.

I am here for myself. I am here for you. I am here for the community.

How will you take that first step?

How will you be Hineni?


[1] The Star Thrower, Loren Eiseley

[2] Pirkei Avot 2:16



[5] Exodus 3

[6] Avot de-Rabbi Natan, commentary on Pirkei Avot 1:4, translated by Rabbi Kelilah Miller