Rosh Hashanah: Staying Humble

A royal family of sheep
Will our prayers be accepted?

Table for Five: Rosh Hashanah Edition

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Behold, I stand here, impoverished in good deeds, perturbed and frightened in fear [of Him,] Who is enthroned upon the praises of Yisrael. I have come to stand and to plead before You in behalf of Your people, Yisrael, who have appointed me their messenger, even though I am not worthy or qualified for the task.

– Hineni, From The Rosh Hashanah prayers

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, Bnai David – Judea

It is with some trepidation that I share that I’ve never much-enjoyed the Hineni prayer. I love, admire, and respect our hazzanim (prayer leaders) and I invariably feel uncomfortable hearing them declare their unworthiness.

Beyond simple discomfort, I also find the spectacle of Hineni to be unhelpful and even slightly off-putting. It is unhelpful in that we in the kahal have carefully chosen our prayer leader not based on his technical skills alone, but also – even primarily – based on his spiritual passion and virtuous character. It is the confidence that we feel in him that will open up our own hearts and souls. And it is slightly off-putting because that’s the nature of any public declaration of humility. Ironically, humility is sometimes taken as a point of pride, rendering the sincerity of self-proclaimed humility somewhat suspect.

Hineni calls to mind the intentionally ironic and humorous comment of Rav Yosef in Tractate Sotah. The Mishna there teaches that “When Rabbi Yehuda the Prince died, humility and fear of sin ceased”, sparking the comment of Rav Yosef, “Do not say that humility ceased, because there is still me!” Hineni’s unmistakable value though is in its modeling (albeit in an awkwardly publicly way) of a particular practice of humility. A moment in which people around us have singled us out for praise or special stature is a moment when we need to intentionally recall the truths about ourselves that only we know, the imperfections of which only we are aware, and the distance we yet need to travel to be fully deserving of the praise and recognition that we are receiving.

Rabbi Dr. Jason Weiner, Cedars-Sinai

This prayer seems to beg God to accept our prayers, even if we don’t merit a positive response. But why are we worried that we aren’t “qualified?” It sounds like we’re apologizing that we aren’t “licensed” to say these prayers, yet “God is close to all who call in sincerity.”

Perhaps we’re expressing the recognition that even as we approach God on one of the holiest days, when we spend so much time praying, there are no words fully adequate to articulate our thoughts to the Almighty. We stand before God on the High Holidays with much to ask for in the coming year, so many mistakes we beg forgiveness for in the past year, so much to give thanks for and to express our love to God for.

Yet, how can a mere human being use finite language to properly express everything we need to say at this auspicious time? Words do not suffice. We would almost be better off singing a niggun to connect to God. Indeed, the shofar blasts serve as a primal cry to God, which no words can truly capture. But our Sages have given us holy and profound prayers to *attempt* to say some of the things that need to be said. So we’ll say them. But dear God, please know that these are only words, so allow us to connect our emotions and our souls to you, because we have much more to say than any words can ever convey. God, please hear our cry.

Erez Safar, Torah/Kabbalah columnist, author of Light of the Infinite

When Leonard Cohen released what he knew would be his last album, he titled the song to begin his parting opus, “You Want It Darker.” On it, he sings “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready, my Lord.”

Rosh Hashanah is a moment in time where we all stand as Leonard Cohen once did – knowing it is time, we too stand as creations before our Creator, unsure as to our fate based on a string of moments where we may have felt faithless.

Just as we admit to God in the Hineni prayer how we are “impoverished in good deeds, perturbed and frightened in fear,” Cohen sings, “There’s a lover in the story, But the story’s still the same, There’s a lullaby for suffering, And a paradox to blame, But it’s written in the scriptures.” We all stand in life just like this – a lover in life, caught in a paradox, seemingly set in the scene to fail.

But it is Rosh Hashanah, a powerful time of teshuva. All we have to do is remember that everything is in the Divine’s hands. We are meant to spiritualize material reality through this process of teshuva or returning, which is re-turning, to once again turn towards our innermost selves and the One who made us.

As we read many times in Torah, “Whoever is generous of heart shall bring the offering of Hashem.” This is the time more than any other that we stand before our Creator, with a full heart and a desire to return and align with the Light of the infinite. It is this heartfelt prayer that mirrors the offerings we once brought in the Holy Temples that redeem us all. As our Sages taught, “God desires the heart.”

Rabbi Scott N. Bolton, Congregation Or Zarua, New York City

Hineini! Engage, inspire, and accept me as I am. In the merit of my ancestors grant me an audience.

When we believe in and take pride in being part of the royal family of the King of Kings, attaching ourselves to the Creator of the Universe, for each of us, there is a brilliance and sweetness infused into our prayer lives.

According to the liturgy we are like sheep in God’s flock. I love grazing with my people! And I am reminded that my animal soul connects me with all creation. And, the Sages tell me to overcome my yeitzer ha’ra, the inclination towards cruel and devious tendencies bound up in the neshama be’heimit, the beastly part of the soul.

“Don’t I have personal merits before, You, God?! Doesn’t everyone in this assembly, this holy school of fish? Even if I have doubts about where to find You, hear me, God, “Hineini!” Beyond “who I am” I now see past the current horizon line because I remember Your name is “I Will Be.” I am ready to be all that I can possibly be. For that I am returning to You first! This kind of t’shuvah is hineini t’shuvah. This is related to the fire at the burning bush and Your name, God, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh – I will be that which I will be.

That is the holy endeavor we embark upon during the High Holy Days, to be present, to understand the past we came from and to transform our lives into a more blessed future. Hineini – we stand ready.

Rabbi Rebecca Schatz & Rabbi Josh Warshawsky (Temple Beth Am)

“I’m not the right person for this task! I don’t know how I was possibly chosen for this. And so I call out to God using names of infinite openness, baring my soul with honesty and clarity.

‘May the path I embark on be successful. Accept my prayer like it is the prayer of the righteous and innocent. Accept it as though it is sung out in a sweet voice. Accept it as though it is prayed by someone whose life has been well spent, by someone who is deeply interconnected with the people and the world around them.’ ‘Please, do not hold these people to blame for my sins. Do not find them guilty for my misdeeds. May there not be a stumbling in my prayer, for I am careless and have surely sinned.’” (Rabbi Josh Warshawsky wrote a beautiful version of Hineni, his interpretation excerpted above and shared in full with exquisite song at joshwarshawsky.com.)

We all find ourselves in moments of discomfort that allow for growth and vulnerability. The leader of our service stands in front of everyone and says, here I am, all of me, the imperfect me, because that mirrors each of us and makes us more comfortable to share our prayers. God contracts God’s self to allow for creation, which is both perfect and flawed. Hineini. Here I am. I plead as my unformed self on behalf of the most holy of creations – people who are imperfect and find growth in their missteps. I am not worthy alone, but together our community is qualified for Your task.

With thanks to Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, Rabbi Dr. Jason Weiner, Erez Safar, Rabbi Scott N. Bolton, and Rabbi Rebecca Schatz & Rabbi Josh Warshawsky

Photo by Kevin Frayer

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