There’s one overriding question in the Hebrew Bible, and one essential answer. The question never lets one go and the answer is never complete.
The question comes right at the beginning: it’s what God asks Adam after he’s eaten the forbidden fruit. It consists of just one word in Hebrew, ‘Ayekah? Where are you?’
The answer, given by Abraham, Moses, and all of us too, with different degrees of consciousness, is also a single word: ‘Hinneni, I’m here.’
Between these two words lies the whole of our life, with all its relationships, to others, ourselves, the world, and God.
I felt bad on Wednesday night, pushing my trolley straight past the woman sitting on the ground outside Tesco’s. I’d given her a coin before and said hello; this time I had no change and failed to muster even a greeting before, mercifully, someone else spoke to her. I wished I’d at least acknowledged her existence. Some years ago, Nic Schlagman spoke on Yom Kippur about Isaiah’s command, ‘Feed the hungry.’ He’d been working among homeless people. It’s the communication, he said, the connection, the human contact: these are individuals, with lives, stories, hopes.
Hinenni, ‘I am here,’ is not something one says, but lives.
I’m chastened when I hear in eulogies, ‘Mum was always there for my sister and me;’ or ‘He was such a good friend; when any of us needed someone to talk to, someone you knew really cared, he was there.’ A little voice inside me then invariably says, ‘And what about you? Have you been there for your nearest and dearest?’ Yes? No? Partly? There are many half-ways: one can live one’s relationships (we probably all do, sometimes) in a state of presence-but-absence; one can hear, but not really listen; one can be there, but only when it suits.
(On a lighter note, our puppy dog Nessie is the champion of Hinneni from the moment you come through the door: licks, paws, tail wagging the whole of her eager dog body, ‘I’m here just for you,’ she says – and for your attention, biscuits and a walk.)
A cruel voice inside my head tells me, ‘You’re living your life in a flurry of inadequate Hinnenis.’ An excusing voice answers, ‘But we all do; that’s reality. One can’t be there for everyone all the time, even those one loves and cares for most.’
Then a kinder and wiser inner voice answers, ‘Don’t think like that. Say rather, ‘How can I deepen my Hinneni?’ How can we be more truly present, for those we’re closest to, for friends, for those who turn to us?
Hinneni is, as I wrote above, just one word. But that’s only part of its story; it’s actually the concatenation of two: hineh and ani, ‘Look,’ and ‘I’. But the combination doesn’t mean ‘Look, – me!’ Rather, the opposite is the case: Hinneni takes ‘me’ and makes it part of looking; it transforms the ‘I’ of me, my self, my wants, my ego, and reformulates it as awareness, attentiveness to the world. Rashi explains it as ‘an expression of readiness and humility.’
Hinneni is being there, with and for others, with and for ourselves, and with, if one experiences it that way, God. RS Thomas puts it magnificently in his wonderful poem Alive:
And it if you speaking…
…At night, if I waken,
there are the sleepless conurbations
of the stars…
Hinneni is the deepening of who we are, life’s response to life.