Wilfredo Rodriguez and I work for the same nonprofit agency but rarely see each other. When we get off the elevator, he turns right, I go left. We work in different departments, and our part-time schedules rarely overlap.
So it was happenstance that we bumped into each other one morning a few days before the Thanksgiving holiday. We exchanged pleasantries. I mentioned that our synagogue (Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair) would participate that evening in an ecumenical Thanksgiving service at Vincent United Methodist Church in Nutley. I knew this would pique his interest because, in addition to being a caseworker for veterans, Wilfredo is a pastor at a church in Linden.
Later that day in the parking lot, Wilfredo and I again met accidentally and continued our conversation. He said, “When I was in divinity school, we studied Greek and Hebrew, but the only Hebrew word I remember is ‘Hineni.’”
I was so taken aback that I blurted out the first thing that came to mind: “Well, if you remember just one word from the entire Torah, then you picked the right one — ‘Hineni’ — ‘Here I am.’”
What was I thinking? Did I suppose I suddenly had become a biblical scholar? Who was I to judge the significance of this word? And why did Wilfredo remember “Hineni,” a word that appears only eight times in the Torah? Why wasn’t it God’s name or Shabbat, words that appear frequently and are the foundation of Judaism, that he remembered?
Woody Allen is often quoted as saying that 80 percent of life is just showing up. But in the High Holiday Torah reading, surely Abraham does more than just show up in response to God’s call at the binding of Isaac (the Akedah, Genesis 22:1). By crying out “Hineni,” he shows his willingness to obey God.
Similarly, when Abraham announces his presence to Isaac and the angel (Genesis 22:7 and 22:11), there must be greater intentionality than simply standing on Mount Moriah waiting to sacrifice his only son.
Wilfredo told me his “Hineni” moment arrived when he enlisted in the Navy to serve as a chaplain in Afghanistan and Iraq. Did he serve out of obligation or love of country? Perhaps it was a combination.
As I think of Wilfredo and Abraham, and of Moses’s and Jacob’s “Hineni” moments later in the Torah, I wonder if I am asking the right question. It seems to me that the response itself is more important than the reason one responds. “Here I am. Now what do you need? What can I do?” is what matters.
What good timing! As the secular New Year approaches, we have the opportunity to learn from the Jewish New Year. Like Abraham in the High Holiday Torah reading and Wilfredo in the parking lot, we can resolve to be present and to act.
I would like to believe that 2020 will be my “Hineni” year. In one long breath, whether I whisper or shout, I will say, “Here I am, what can I do to help my family, neighbor, synagogue, community, the hungry, the homeless? How can I get involved politically so that I have no regrets, come the presidential election?”
As we click our champagne glasses on New Year’s Eve and hug the person next to us, of course we’ll exclaim, “Happy New Year!” This year let us add “Hineni” to the toast. Whether we say it out of obligation, kindness of heart, or generosity of spirit, let’s resolve to be there for each other.
Merrill Silver is an ESL teacher at JVS of MetroWest in East Orange.