Here I Am Not

The brief exchange between Avraham and Yitzchak on the way to the Akeidah, less than two verses long, and sandwiched between the two phrases “and the two of them walked together”, is the only conversation between this primal father-and-son pair recorded in the Torah.

It is all the more powerful because of its brevity, because of its singleness, and because of what it doesn’t say explicitly yet, by omission, makes overwhelmingly present.

When they set off for Har HaMoriah, Avraham takes only what the moment requires – he leaves behind his servants, the donkey and, presumably, any of the provisions they brought on their three-day journey, He takes the wood for the offering (placing it upon Yitzchak), the fire and the knife. That’s all there is – two men, wood, fire and knife. Thus, the set off together. Here is the conversation.

Yitzchak says to Avraham, his father, he says, “my father”, and Avraham says, “Here I am son”, and he (Yitzchak) says, “here are the fire and the wood, and where is the kid for an offering?”.

Avraham says, “G-d will see for Himself the kid for an offering, son…

Note how Yitchak omits reference to the knife. It’s as though it’s not there for him, even though, in the spare furnishings of the scene, it’s all too there, as it is horribly all-too-there when Avraham soon thereafter sends forth his hand and takes the knife to slaughter his son. At that moment, Avraham becomes one with the knife.

Note also how Avraham effectively dismisses any concern about the absence of the kid for an offering. Yitzchak notices the absence, but it’s as though that absence is inconsequential for Avraham. As indeed it must be, since Avraham knows very that the kid is present – and here, the double-meaning of kid in colloquial English serves us well. Yitzchak has become one with the kid.

With the scene set, father and son together and yet occupying such different worlds, let’s look at Avraham’s response to Yitzchak’s utterance, “my father”.

Recall that twice in this story, Hashem calls to Avraham. Each time Avraham responds by saying “Here I am” – “Hinneni”. A call is needed when there is distance or some sort of separation (such as station or rank) between the caller and the one being called. Hashem calls to those He seeks to draw near, and they respond with their presence: I am here! Thus responded also Yaakov, Moshe, and Shmuel to Hashem’s call to bridge the seemingly infinite chasm. Here, however, Yitzchak has no need to call to his father, for he is right beside him! Rather, he simply says to him “my Father”. The tone, and thus, import of Yitzchak’s words is unclear, nevertheless, Avraham here too responds with those same words, “Here I am, son”. A strange response indeed, since, since Yitzchak surely knew that his father was right there. So, what could Avraham have meant to convey by that response?

Let’s look more carefully at the word “Here I am” – Hinneni. The precise form of the word as it appears here, and syntactical positioning, is unique in all the Tanach. For while the word “Hin’nee is not an unusual word, the pausal form, pronounced not “hin’nEE” but rather “hiNNEni” appears ONLY where the word carries a disjunctive cantillation marking (in almost all cases, an etnachta). It is in this usage, at the pause, shorn of any attendant verb which would otherwise follow, that the word “Hinneni” unloads the full power of the presencing it invokes. Yet in our verse, the pausal form, “hinneni” appears despite the fact that it bears a conjunctive cantillation marking, joining it to the next word. We read not “Here I am {pause}, my son” but rather, in one breath, “Here-I-am-my-son”.

Further: While the word “hinneni”  features a dagesh chazak (a dot indicating a doubled consonant) in the first of its two letters “nun” throughout the Tanach, only here, in all of Tanach, do both letters “nun” in “hinnenni” receive a dagesh chazak. Now, “Hinneni” is simply a contraction of “Hinneh Ani” – Here I am. The dagesh is called for in the first “nun”, since it compensates for the absorbed consonant “aleph” from “ani” by doubling that “nun”. But there is no grammatical reason or justification for the second “nun” also to bear a dagesh.

Unless there is yet another meaning being evoked. The word “einenni”, a contraction of the words “ein ani” – “I am not” – is the polar opposite of “hinneni”, as it denotes absence rather than presence. It even sounds like “hinenni”! And here, too, an “aleph” is absorbed and needs compensation. But in this case, however, the dagesh compensating for the absorbed “aleph” is the second “nun”, since the first “nun”, following a long vowel, cannot carry a dagesh.

So, what does the word “hinnenni” with dageshim in both “nuns” convey? “HERE I AM NOT”! Simultaneous presence and absence. Avraham and Yitzchak are together, alone, for the only time in their lives (after the Akedah, Yitchak famously disappears). Yitzchak turns to his father, asking, pleading, desperate for the reassurance of a father who is beyond him, transfigured by trial, faith and destiny.  Are you here, he wonders, sensing that gulf grown enormous as the moment of truth draws ever closer. Are you my father, he wonders, only too aware of that the razor-sharp intensity and focus in human form which strides before him?

And Avraham, whose every breath is drawn from within the paradox of “take your son, your only one, whom you love, Yitzchak, and offer him…” against “for it is through Yitzchak that your offspring will be called”, responds by embodying that very paradox:

I am fully here with you, son, walking with you, loving you, bonded to you, continued through you, seared into your soul as you take forward our shared vision and covenant with Hashem, AND,

I am completely absent as I turn toward Hashem in complete fidelity and trust that all of what Hashem has commanded me will be fulfilled, as I have ever done, and without which I would never had merited the promise of you, the one who will go on beyond me and can never know me if he is to know himself.

And they walked on, together and they came to the place which Hashem had said…

One day, we are taught/know/believe/yearn for constantly, Eliyahu will come, just before that Great Day of Hashem, and he will restore the hearts of fathers to their sons and the hearts of sons to their fathers. On that day, will there be any greater restoration than the hearts of Avraham and Yitzchak to each other? One that day, Avraham, who taught us all presence even when absence temporarily-for-eternity is the order of the day, will take that knife and carefully carve out the dagesh out of the second “nun”, as generation turns to generation on that Day of Hashem and proclaims, unreservedly “Here I am”!

About the Author
Born and raised in L.A. in an idiosyncratic Jewish home, BA in physics, and a life-reorienting Year Abroad in Israel which launched me on a path of exploration and commitment, leading through many Jewish worlds and connecting me with a rich and seemingly irreconcilable panoply of Jewish souls. Years and years of teaching Torah and listening to, learning with, counselling and sharing with people searching high and low have been followed and enriched by work in the world of hi-tech. Everything made possible by my family - my beloved wife and the children and grandchildren with whom Hashem has blessed us.
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