Hineni: The Dance of Presence
Rosh Hashanah 5772
by Rabbi Diane Elliot
Hineni—say it with me—hineni. I am here! Behold—me! Feel yourself arriving here just a little bit more.
Hinakh, Hinkha—behold—you! Hinakh yafah rayati, how beautiful you are my dear one, it says in the Song of Songs, Hinkha yafeh dodi—how handsome, beloved. Please take a moment to look around at all the shining, newborn faces, our traveling companions through these days of awe.
Hinenu—here we are, together. Feel the skeins of connection between us, some of us old friends, some new ones. How many are here at the Aquarian Minyan HHD’s for the first time? Welcome! Hinenu, we’re here with you! What a miracle to be together, to have traversed another year and arrived at this moment of rebirth.
I’ve striven for hineni and struggled with hineni—for whole-hearted, whole-bodied presence—for as long as I can remember. In the world such as it is, with so many assaults on the senses, so much information, so much pain and struggle, it’s been hard to want to bring myself fully, consistently here.
When I was a young dancer studying at the Nikolais studio on 36th street in New York City, one of the catchphrases that my teachers repeated constantly was “Show me!” When we would improvise or choreograph movements on a certain quality or idea, our teachers wanted us to place our whole bodies and spirits in service of that idea, to let it so completely permeate us, that we would become transparent, and only that particular quality of space or motion would be visible through us. The trick was to be so present in your movement that the everyday you—with all of your fears, insecurities, and blockages—disappeared, so that something else—something infinitely bigger and grander—something transcendent—could shine through.
Hineni—or hin’ni as it’s sometimes pronounced—the art of presence, is our theme for these High Holy Days. It comes from the Hebrew root hen, “behold” or “see,” which gives emphasis to the word that comes after it, in this case the pronoun “me.” “See, me! Behold, me.” In rabbinic Hebrew and in Aramaic, hen also means “yes.” So in its fullest sense, hineni says yes to the moment: “See, here I am, yes!”
It’s a rather rare word in our Torah tradition, occurring only eight times in the Five Books of Moses, so maybe it has always been a spiritual challenge to be present! Three of those hineni’s come in the story of the Akeidah, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his beloved son Isaac on Mt. Moriah, which we’ll read on the second day of Rosh HaShanah. (Be there or be square, Redwood Gardens!) G~d, then Isaac, then an angel each call out to Abraham, and each time he answers without hesitation, “Hineni, here I am.” When Isaac is old and blind, he calls out for his favorite son Esau, who answers, “Hineni!” And when G~d calls out to Moses from the midst of a burning bush, Moses, also instantly responds: “Hineni, I’m here.” Of course, Moses back-pedals almost instantly when he’s given his marching orders, but once the inner self has leaped to the great “Yes!”—at least in the Bible—you know your foot is on the path of Presence, and the only way out will be through.
But in whose voice is the very first “hineni” we hear in the Torah? In the generation of Noah, when the human experiment has gone badly awry, G~d accosts Noah with, “Hineni, here I am ready to destroy the world.” Imagine awakening to that announcement on the NPR morning show! (Sometimes it seems that we do…) After Noah and his family and the Ark-load of creatures survive the Great Flood, G~d blesses them, again with “Hineni, Here I am, making my covenant with you and with your offspring and with every living being with you in the Ark. Never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth”—at which point a rainbow, a wondrous sign of Holy Presence and promise, appears in the sky.
The final hineni in the Torah is also G~d’s: after leaving Egypt, when the people are tired and hungry and afraid, G~d says to Moses: “Hineni! I will rain down food for you from heaven…,” the manna that will nourish the people throughout their desert sojourn. So the human hineni’s in the Torah, these rare declarations of presence, of readiness to listen and to serve, are book-ended by promises of Divine Providence and nurture, and maybe it is, after all, G~d’s hineni’s, the sense of some mysterious, powerful, guiding, guarding, awesome Presence that gives many of us the courage, in these scattered and challenged lives of ours, to bring ourselves, at least momentarily, into utter, undivided focus and willingness to serve.
What keeps us from being present, with ourselves and for one another? Rabbi Alan Lew z”l, in his wonderful book about the high Holy Day cycle, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, speaks to this:
What is occluding the deep connection between you and your fellow human beings?... One of the things that most often impedes this connection is our fear of one another’s pain. …we all have one heart. Deep down we know this very well. But what we are usually not aware of is how much we feel other people’s pain and how much energy we waste trying to defend ourselves against it.1
When we can release fear and the judgment and the critical distance it engenders, then we not only step into the moment, we serve the moment. Kati Pressman was working as an RN on a crisis unit in a Denver hospital when she began to study and perform improvisational theatre. Little did she know how the techniques of immediacy, concentration, and spontaneous response she was learning would bleed over into “real” life. Late one night, Billy, a Vietnam vet who had become violent, was brought into the crisis unit by his roommate and two police officers. He proceeded to blockade himself behind a billiard table, threatening everyone with a cue and billiard balls. The officers began yelling at him to stop, threatening him with injury if he didn’t. Kati describes the encounter in her book, Simple Presence:
I entered the lobby from an adjacent ward, alerted by the sounds of yelling. Standing in the archway, I grasped the scene in an instant. Billy turned to me, startled, his eyes focused on mine. We were caught in stillness and surprise. He and I stared at each other, the room quiet during the momentary pause. I opened my hands, inviting Billy, “Come with me, I’ll listen.” He moved slightly toward me, tentative. I walked backwards slowly, never taking my gaze from his face. Billy followed, as if dancing, one step at a time, until we came to my office. I stepped aside, and gestured for him to go in. Inside, we sat down in chairs facing each other. Billy began a litany of anger and grief, most of it unintelligible. I listened, still but alert, with no agenda, and total acceptance. I don’t remember how long he raged…. Finally, Billy put his head on the desk and sobbed. When he seemed subdued, I gently touched his arm. He looked up and I motioned for him to stand up. I took his hand and walked him to a hospital bed where he fell asleep.2
How do we learn to become that present for one another? Can the accumulation of small yeses lead us to a Great Yes? Will we allow life to teach us what we so need to learn? Our Sages taught that it is the special spiritual task of these High Holy Days of Turning to move from a judgmental, critical, defended, anti-life stance to the seat of compassion—compassion for ourselves and for others. Com-passion…being with the pain.
What has been your greatest hineni moment so far? For me it was the nine days I sat at my father’s bedside as he was dying. Everything in my body recoiled from my father’s withering body, from the institutionally fluorescent atmosphere of the nursing home, from the grief of losing him. But there I stayed, singing, praying, being with him, with my mother and brother and sister, with the nurses, with the volunteer helpers. So much love. Take a moment to reflect: what have been your hineni moments? Is there something more you are being called to open to in your life right now? Are you prepared to discern and know? Ayekha? Where are you?
In this past Shabbat's Torah reading, Parashat Nitzavim, Moses tells the people, massed on the border of Canaan and preparing to cross over into the Land of Promise, "Not with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath; but with whoever is here with us, standing today before YHVH our G~d, as well as with whoever is not standing with us.” The great covenant is made not only with "et-asher yeshno poh," those here today, but also with"et-asher eynenu poh,” those who are not here today—all future generations, all of us.
We are to be the witnesses of Oneness in this world, and we are being challenged constantly to exchange eynenu poh, not here, for yeshno poh, here, in attendance, recipients of the ever-flowing Word. And beyond that, to exchange yeshno po for hineni—fully present, alive, conscious, awake in every iota of our beings: b’khol levavkha, uv’khol nafsh’kha uv’khol m’odekha, with all of your heart and mind, with your whole soul, and with every resource you possess. Holding nothing back!
And what is it that our Torah tells us we are to hold nothing back from, to be wholly present to? The gift of life, the gift of one another, the mandate to treat one another well, to live justly, to preserve life, to care for the earth, and above all, to love and care for one another as well as we love and care for ourselves.
This is what we are called to return to this Rosh HaShanah and every day that we are blessed to breathe in these bodies—this great hinenu, this multi-dimensional presence flowing. We pray to enter, to participate, to find in our hearts and throats the wherewithal to say, simply, “Yes. Yes.”
I would like to close with these words of the great mystic poet of the 13th century, Mechtild of Magdeburg:
I cannot dance, O Lord,
Unless You lead me.
If You wish me to leap joyfully,
Let me see You dance and sing –
Then I will leap into Love –
And from Love into Knowledge,
And from Knowledge into the Harvest,
That sweetest Fruit beyond human sense.
There I will stay with You, whirling.3
1 Lew, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, p. 83
2 Pressman, Simple Presence, pp. 31-32.
3 in Hirschfield, ed., Women in Praise of the Sacred, p. 86