Introduction to Hineni

I’ll start by thanking MY teachers, Rabbi Helfand and Rabbi Schatz—for allowing me a few minutes to introduce the words:

(Chant) Hineni, hineni he’oni mi’ma’as nirash venifchad mipachad yoshev tehillot Yisrael….

These are the opening words of the prayer (or meditation) used by synagogues throughout the world who follow this Ashkenazic tradition three days a year— Hineni: Here I am; here am I. Present. In this moment. Ready.

The words: such beautiful poetic words, written by an unkown medieval cantor (likely in Germany). The music or nusach (musical mode)….at least as I choose to chant it, since there are numerous ways to do so—written by the king of 20th century cantors, Yossele Rosenblatt.

Its opening sentence declares: Here I stand, impoverished in merit, trembling in the presence of the One who hears the prayers of Israel.

It’s the next line, though, that most speaks to me as one who serves as a cantor:

Even though I am UN-fit and un-WORTHY for the task, I come to represent your people Israel….and plead on their behalf.

In other words, if I may put it in my vernacular: Hey, G-d; hey brothers and sisters! I know I’m not worthy of this weighty position in our holiest moments of the year. Those who know me and my weaknesses well enough would likely agree. Lord knows (no pun intended) that G-d ‘Him’self surely knows my less than saintly inner thoughts, behaviors, sins, omissions, errors, made during the past year…..and I, Doron Shapira, stand here declaring that publicly three times before every person in my community. (Perhaps that’s why I start BEHIND all of you waaaay in the back.) ☺

And YET—that thought is coupled with the Hineni statement that, in spite of that, all of you, “SHOLCHAI” (as the text labels you)—those who send me to do this by choosing me to do so: my clergy, my Board, my community….you all still say— yeah, we’ll still take you; you’re at least worthy enough to chant these many words on our behalf….to sing so many melodies….to lead a choir….even to guide our priests in blessing all of us….at least for now—we’ll still take you. ☺

And that, Friends, is the inner conflict I deal with (and which Hineni deals with): this conflict of Esteem vs. Humility….and how to deal with it all graciously. Maybe that’s why Hineni also states in the middle paragraph:

Vekabel t’filati ki’tfilat ragil—accept my prayer as if it WERE uttered by one worthy of this task. Let’s play this pretend game, G-d. Let’s pretend I AM worthy…and for any UN-worthiness, let’s not have that affect my community or their prayers in any way.

You know, all of this very much reminds me of the story of the rabbi who kneels before his congregation, puts his forehead to the floor and calls out, “Before you, Oh Lord, I am nothing.” The cantor, seeing this from his rabbi, also kneels down and states even louder, “Before You, Oh Lord, I, TOO, am nothing.” Max Bernstein from Row 5, inspired by all of this, comes forth to the bimah, kneels down and exclaims, “Before You, Oh Lord, I am TRULY a NOTHING!”

The rabbi nudges the cantor and says, “Pssst, hey—Chazzen—look who thinks he’s a nothing!”

Golda Meir taught this lesson even more succinctly when she uttered this now classic line to one of her ministers: “Don’t be so humble; you’re not that great!”

Golda nailed the Hineni challenge for me—how can I seem so humble when I declare how humble I am?….Yeh how can I not state that, for the record, I recognize my shortcomings….and please, G-d, don’t let that affect the people I serve in any way.

Perhaps, also, THAT is why this prayer (and others in the category of these types of meditation, known as reshuyot) were originally recited silently. How’s that for a different approach? (Many of you would recognize the most famous of these reshuyot before each Amidah—A-donai sefatai tiftach….) Perhaps if I prayed it  silently—just between me and G-d, no loud chanting, no walk down an aisle through hundreds of you….it would all seem more in the spirit of that humility.

BUT—then….I wouldn’t have these sweet pre-Hineni moments…..moments of memory of Mr. Henry Nahoum, of blessed memory, making funny faces at what I’m sure he recognized as a somewhat nervous young cantor, always pointing the direction of which way to walk….moments of reconnecting with my friends in the very back white chairs for a few moments…moments of checking in with the regulars who can only be found there during these days….or of hugging the college student I haven’t seen for so long….and—I wouldn’t have that walk itself. That walk I’ve made 74 times consecutively since 1994; the walk which allows me to truly empathize with my congregants’ High Holy Day experience:

THE SOUND: a little more muffed in the back; pretty good in the middle; loud and crisp up front.

THE CLIMATE: a little stuffy in the back; just right in the middle; super cool up here.

Without it I wouldn’t see, from the corner of my eye, those who turn around a little bit to peek at me as I’m coming down. I wouldn’t have the somewhat humorous occasional near collision with those coming back or across as I make my way down (hard as Chief Usher Jayson Shmueli tries to control traffic at those moments). It is a little ironic that, today—for the first time and with your permission, I’ll chant Hineni #75 from right here on the bimah.

Without the walk, I also wouldn’t get one of the most oft-asked questions of my career:

How do you time the walk perfectly so that the prayer concludes as you approach the podium…and all the more so on Rosh Hashanah Day 2 when your walk is half as long?

My answer has been consistent through all these years as it remains today: I…..just….don’t….know! It’s the magic of Hineni!

I joke—but the word itself does have magic, majesty, power, history: it’s the word Abraham exclaims when G-d calls on him to sacrifice his son. It’s the word Moses responds with when G-d calls upon HIM at the burning bush.

A final thought….

My friend, singer and songwriter Sam Glaser, turned to the word, Hineni, as inspiration for his first Jewish song. Its chorus says:

Oh, if I’m here, G-d, and if I can help, let me be the one who is the first to say. I’m going to be the one who is the first to say:



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