By Anne Rosenthal, a d’var Torah on Parashat Shemot from our Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class
Hineini. It is Hebrew for “Here I am.” Hineini: here I am, at this point in time, the celebration of our b’nai mitzvah; in this place in space, at Temple Shalom with family, friends, and my community. Hineini: here I am, in this holy sanctuary, to elaborate on the teachings of the Torah and the portion this week, Sh’mot, from the book of Exodus. For those of you who know me, you may remember that it was only a little more than one year ago that I formally converted to Judaism. Today I am celebrating my status as a bat mitzvah! Allow me to explain why this particular parashah, Sh’mot, and in particular, Chapter 3, verses 1-6, has special meaning for me.
Moses, now an adult, has driven the flock of sheep of his father-in-law Jethro, into the wilderness. He comes to Horeb, the mountain of God, and there he sees an amazing sight. An angel of the Lord appears in a blazing fire coming out of a bush. Moses sees that the bush is on fire, and yet the bush is not consumed by the flames. He says to himself, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” God sees that Moses has turned aside to look, and then he calls to Moses out of the bush. “Moses! Moses!” Moses replies, “Here I am,” in Hebrew, “Hineini.” God tells Moses to remove his sandals, because he is standing on holy ground, and God continues, “I am the God of your father’s house, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Then Moses hides his face, because he is afraid to look at God.
It’s probably clear to all of us that this is an important event in the Torah. God calls Moses, Moses responds at the ready. Scholar and teacher Rabbi Norman Cohen offers that this is the moment, when God calls to Moses and he responds, “Here I am” that will eventually lead to the solidification of the covenant between God and the people of Israel.
Like me, you may find parts of this story curious: why is it that God waited for Moses to turn his head to the side to gaze at the burning bush, before calling out to him; why did he call Moses’s name twice; why did Moses choose to reply, “Here I am”?
It has been suggested by scholars that God waited for Moses to turn his head, before calling out to him, because he wanted Moses’s full attention. God waited until Moses was fully prepared to hear him, in a spiritual sense. Moses may have been deep in thought as he led his flock through the wilderness, maybe about his day’s work or family problems, as he approached that bush. Only when he turned his head to clearly observe the flames, was he concentrating and fully engaged in the moment. God called Moses’s name, and then again a second time. Perhaps Moses failed to respond to the first call of his name out of fear, disbelief, or distraction. Perhaps God repeated Moses’s name to signify the importance of His appearance. Moses replied, “Hineini”. Here I am: I am listening with my heart, mind, and soul and am ready to accept you.
“Hineini,” as Moses used the word in response to God’s call from the burning bush, is, I believe, just as relevant today in our everyday lives. When we come to Shabbat services, we are invited by the clergy to turn off our cell phones, close our eyes, allow ourselves to be fully present. We are called to turn away from the daily pressures and demands of our busy lives. In this way we can be with the congregation, and together pray to God. We can say “Hineini”. This allows us to connect with the people around us, to pray, to think, or whatever we choose. It allows us to be fully present in that moment.
There are distractions all around us in our hectic lives. We often refer to our ability to “multi-task” and we take on more and more responsibilities. But as we do, I think we begin to ignore or not really listen to the people or things that matter most to us. How many times have I heard my family members ask me a question or tell me about their day, while I’m too distracted by so many other thoughts or chores that I don’t really hear them. How many times have I seen people talking on their cell phone as they sit at the table with friends in a restaurant. Perhaps in these situations, and so many others, we need to stop and remind ourselves, “Hineini,” here I am. I am listening to you, I hear you, and I care about you. I am here for you. “Hineini” is our state of mind when we are not allowing ourselves to be distracted, but instead are devoting our heart and our mind to the people or situation before us, whether we are in Temple, before a burning bush, or talking with others.
I would like to share with you a part of the story of my ceremony at Mayyim Hayyim, marking my formal conversion to Judaism. Arriving with my family, I was greeted by my close friends who were already there, waiting in the beautiful lobby. I first met with the Beit Din; how reassuring it was to me, that my three Rabbis from Temple Shalom were there to serve as my panel. We talked for half an hour, about my journey that led me to my decision to convert. Then I was escorted to the suite where I was to prepare for my immersion in the mikvah. I took my time and followed the precise instructions. When at last I was ready, my good friend Lisa Berman, who was also serving as my mikvah guide, led me to the mikvah. She reminded me to turn the handle of the spout, to allow a few drops of “pure” water into the mikvah waters. Then, as I descended the stairs, Lisa discreetly turned away and held up a large sheet for my privacy. I felt alone as I slowly, carefully, and purposely entered the warm, soft waters of the mikvah. It was very quiet, and very peaceful. I became overwhelmed by the significance of the commitment I was about to make. It was a spiritual experience for me unlike any other. Although my clergy, family, and close friends were nearby in the lobby, I could not see them, nor they me. But I could hear them over the top of door, their soft whispers and gentle laughter, as they waited for me to announce that I was ready to proceed. It was so still, so peaceful in the mikvah. But I was so quiet, they must have wondered whether I was there at all. After several more quiet, still moments, Rabbi Gurvis called to me. “Anne, are you ready?” he solemnly asked. “Hineini,” I replied. In the sense that Moses used the same word in his reply to God before the burning bush. Hineini, Here I am, ready to complete my conversion to Judaism, and ready in every sense to accept this special covenant with God.
Of course I have been an adult for many years, though I have been a Jewish adult for but one. I suppose I might have waited for 13 years before becoming a bat mitzvah. But instead, here I am. Hineini. I hope that each of you will have an opportunity to say the same to yourself, today as you celebrate with us, and also to keep it in mind and practice it often. Hineini. It’s an amazing, and powerful, little word!