Some years ago I was leading an interfaith environmental spirituality retreat near Seattle. My co-leader and meditation teacher, Kurt Hoelting, asked us to do a “walking meditation” where we would mindfully walk. This meant that while we were walking (and we were not to try to direct where we were walking) we tried to be mindful of each step, focusing on the place where we put our foot down and trying to be in the present moment of each step. In practice, this kind of walking is much slower than regular walking but is wonderful to focus the mind on a sense of the present in time and space. We were given around half an hour to do this meditation.
After a while I found that I was walking along a path beside the large pond (or small lake) that was on the retreat center property. As I put down each foot the Hebrew word Hineni came into my mind. The word means “Here I am” and so with each step it was, “Here I am. Here I am. Here I am.” In each place and in each moment, “Here I am.”
In the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) the hineni is often used by people when they respond to a direct call from God. For example, in Genesis 22, Abraham is first called by God in verse 1 and he responds Hineni and then God gives him the command to sacrifice Isaac. Later in the chapter when Abraham is about to slay Isaac, the angel calls from heaven and Abraham answers Hineni. Jacob responds to a divine call twice with Hineni (Genesis 31:11 & Genesis 46:2). Moses responds to the voice from the Burning Bush with Hineni (Exodus 3:4) and Samuel also begins his prophetic mission with such a response to God’s call (1 Samuel 3:1-10). And the prophet Isaiah responds with Hineni when he experiences his inaugural vision of God and the seraphim in the Temple (Isaiah 6:8).
The one time in the Tanakh when it would be obvious for such a response is in the story of the Garden of Eden when God calls to Adam and Eve as they are hiding after eating the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:8-10). God asks, “Where are you” (in Hebrew: Ayyekkah?) but instead of answering “Here we are,” Adam can only give out a poor excuse for hiding. God being God, the question was not meant to imply that God could not know where Adam and Eve were but instead was a call to elicit a truthful response. As one biblical scholar pointed out “hineni” also has the force of “At your service!” To the divine call Adam especially failed as he immediately passed the buck of his disobedience to Eve.
About this episode Abraham Joshua Heschel remarked:
When Adam and Eve hid from His presence, the Lord called: Where art Thou (Genesis 3:9). It is a call that goes out again and again. It is a still small echo of a still small voice, not uttered in words, not conveyed in categories of the mind, but ineffable and mysterious, as ineffable and mysterious as the glory that fills whole world. It is wrapped in silence; concealed and subdued; yet it is as if all things were the frozen echo of the question: Where art thou? (God in Search of Man p. 137)
In other words, the divine “Where are you?” calls out every moment of our lives and most of the time, we refuse to hear it, we offer an excuse for not responding, we refuse to answer, “Here I am!” The voice is there but we do not listen. As Heschel said,
…When living true to the wonder of the steadily unfolding wisdom, we feel at times as if the echo of an echo of a voice were piercing the silence, trying in vain to reach our attention. We feel at times called upon, not knowing by whom, against our will, terrified at the power invested in our words, in our deeds, in our thoughts.
In our own lives, the voice of God speaks slowly, a syllable at a time. Reaching the peak of years, dispelling some of our intimate illusions and learning how to spell the meaning of life-experiences backwards, some of us discover how the scattered syllables form a single phrase. Those who know that this life of ours takes place in a world that is not all to be explained in human terms; that every moment is a carefully concealed act of His creation, cannot but ask: is there anything wherein His voice is not suppressed? Is there anything wherein His creation is not concealed? (God in Search of Man, p. 174)
This second passage from Heschel is one of my favorites from his work. It tells us that in all of Creation God is calling out to us even if we can only hear a fragment, a syllable at a time. But if we really listen we hear over the course of time a few syllables that eventually we may realize form a single phrase: “Ayyekkah?” “Where are you?”
On that walking meditation, I answered “Hineni,” To every moment when I heard “Where are you? I responded with “Here I am.” Here at this moment I am in this spot and in this time which will never be repeated in my life or in the history of the universe. Even if I were to return to that same spot, at the same time of year, it would not be the same. So I must try as much as I can to hear the divine question and respond, “Here I am in this precious moment of my life. Here I am in this sacred spot of Creation seeing the Glory of God filling the world. Here I am grateful for my life at this moment, grateful for the beauty all around me wherever I am. Here I am, ready to work to preserve this beauty for others in the future. At Your service!”
There is one more interesting use of the word Hineni in the Hebrew Bible. In the texts of the exilic prophet scholars call Second Isaiah, there are several passages where God says that there will come a time if we act ethically that we will call out and God will respond “Here I am!” (Isaiah 52:6; 58:6-9; 65:1). If we answer the call of God in Creation, then God will be with us as a partner in Tikkun ‘Olam.