Parshat Vayera – ‘Hineni’ – November 4, 2023
In the past month, I have found myself often repeating the same phrases: “no words,” “our world will never be the same after October 7,” “unfathomable,” “how do we move forward,” etc. As a Jewish educator, in my teaching and guiding I strive to synthesize information and tell a coherent story. My primary purpose is to get people to understand, appreciate, and take pride in their personal story, and to connect to a larger, collective story. As Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel famously said, “G-d created humanity because he loves stories.” In recent years, one of my main mantras has been “each of us is constantly figuring out where we place ourselves on the me-we spectrum.” How do we integrate our individual and collective stories?
Unfortunately, since October 7, I’ve struggled to find words to describe what I feel, and what is happening around us. I often find myself speechless and unable to write. Since I’m not guiding visitors to Israel (and probably won’t for a while…), I’ve been trying to find my voice. I’ve done a handful of on-line talks with synagogues abroad, and I think that I’ve finally been able to get back to being able to tell a story. My story. Our story.
We each have our individual story and are collectively part of the larger communities’ stories that we chose to be part of. I’m proud to be part of a people whose story is almost 4,000 years old. I feel privileged to be a link in one of the world’s oldest literary chronicled stories. Do I really believe that all parts of my people’s story are true? Maybe. Did all the chapters in this story really happen? I’m not sure. Am I embarrassed or even outraged by some aspects of our story? Yes. Am I proud and inspired by others? Absolutely!
Our understanding of ourselves is intimately and intricately connected to the group or communities that we chose to belong to. That’s why I chose over 35 years ago to move to Israel. I believe that since Judaism is both a faith/tradition and a people, my Jewish identity could best be expressed and fulfilled by living in Israel. This is the only place in the world where I can fully live according to my individual and collective identity.
October 7 proved to us once again the heavy cost of Jewish sovereignty. Our neighborhood is hostile and although we have signed peace agreements with a few countries, is not overly friendly. We have fought countless wars, experienced endless waves of terrorism and too many rounds of escalation during which thousands of rockets were launched at Israel.
I also know that the cost of not having Jewish sovereignty was even greater. The Shoah was merely the last of too many horrible periods of Jewish suffering.
As a people powerless for two millennia, we must now walk the narrow, slippery path to ensure that the power that we have is a means to an end (Jewish sovereignty) and doesn’t become an end in itself. That is not easy, particularly after we saw the unmitigated, barbaric evil unleashed by Hamas terrorists on October 7.
So, what about our story? We’ve been reading the Hebrew Bible (TaNaKh) for over 2,000 years. Last week Jews throughout the world read one of my favorite sections, Lekh Lecha, in Genesis, in which Abram comes to the Land of Canaan. Shortly after his arrival, G-d tells him to “Arise, walk about the land, through its length and breadth, for I give it to you.” (Gen 13:17). I have pulled out my TaNaKah hundreds of times with visitors from all over the world and read this story as they began their journey in the Land of Israel, encouraging them to walk in the footsteps of our patriarch Abraham, and as he did, connect to the Land.
This week, we read in Vayera about the continuing story of Abraham and Sara in Canaan. Abraham does “what is just and right,” and G-d rewards them by Sara giving birth to their son Isaac. This story is a core part of the Jewish and Christian traditions, but at this point, the third Abrahamic tradition, Islam, diverges. Whereas the Tanakh describes the Akedah (Binding of Isaac) on Mt. Moriah, Islamic tradition tells a similar (but different) story in which Abraham prepares to sacrifice his first born son Ishmael. As a result of Abraham following G-d, the Islamic tradition believes that Sarah becomes pregnant with Isaac.
The core of the three Abrahamic traditions emerge from this story and diverge almost 4,000 years ago. Close to four billion Jews, Christians and Muslims see the world through the prism of the Abrahamic tradition and hold the Land of Israel sacred. Past, present and future events in Israel impact how they see the world.
The biblical narrative describes how “G-d put Abraham to the test, saying to him, ‘Abraham.’ He answered, הנני ‘Here I am.’” (Gen 22:1) That term, Hineni, appears a number of times in the Hebrew Bible – both Abraham and Moses unequivocally say ‘Here I am’ when summoned by G-d. This word is often used in Jewish tradition, as an iteration of one’s unhesitant commitment to stand up and do what is demanded.
I’ve been thinking about the term ‘Hineni’ for the past few weeks. At 6:30 in the morning on October 7, rockets started falling and terrorists had infiltrated the communities adjacent to the Gaza Strip. Local residents and members of the village’s emergency response teams said Hineni and ran to the weapons storage facility to valiantly try to prevent what they had no chance of fully understanding at that movement – the unprecedented murderous onslaught of 3,000 terrorists into their communities. Many of those heroic first responders were murdered on their way to try to defend their families and friends. Others were ambushed en route to the weapons storage…the terrorists knew exactly where they were located.
Unfortunately, the institutions of the state, from the security branches to the government, had not been saying Hineni to the residents of these communities. They had relied on a security concept that invested billions of shekels on the most sophisticated defense mechanisms – electronic detection fences, subterranean anti-tunnel barriers, automatic shooting guns and hi-tech cameras – and hoped or believed that this was sufficient to deter the theological/political aims of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to engage in jihad until Israel would be removed and an Islamic theocracy is established. According to Hamas’ charter, there can be no negotiations and no compromise with Israel. What kind of deterrence can stop such an evil ideology that doesn’t see a place for the Jewish people to live next door, and can perpetrate such heinous crimes?
Tragically, there were not enough security personnel in the area. There were, however, many who, once they heard what was happening, said, ‘Hineni,’ and answered the calls of the residents of the area who called for help, jumped into their cars (sometimes only with a pistol) and drove to the area to try to rescue the residents and fight the terrorists.
Since that dark morning, Israelis continue to be driven by the imperative of Hineni. Those in the military, as well as an estimated 360,000 reservists (sometimes as many as 120% of the reservists who have been called have shown up!) are highly motivated to achieve the two stated goals of Israel – the removal of Hamas (whatever that really means…) and the return of the over 240 hostages. Civil society – those of us not in uniform – has also stood up for the past month, driven by the imperative of Hineni. There has been an unprecedented outpouring of support in every way imaginable by Israelis to address every need that has arisen. This grass-roots response is often in place of the almost total absence of governmental response and support. It has helped strengthen the unity of fate and purpose, and has strengthened the resilience of the People of Israel.
Growing up in Canada, and living in Israel for the last 35 years, I am fortunate to have spent most of my life living along the Israel-Diaspora axis. I am privileged to have guided thousands of people in Israel over the last 30 years, and have been blessed by the deep friendships and new family I have around the world. From early on Shabbat October 7, I have received non-stop messages and calls of love, concern, fear, and support from hundreds of people. All of them have said, Hineni, and have asked what they can do to help. They tell me their concern for us, and I respond that “we are all in this together.” We in Israel may be on the front line, but Diaspora Jewry is in this with us. The unprecedented spread of antisemitism on college campuses and in squares of major Western cities is a very troubling and scary phenomenon. World Jewry has almost uniformly clearly said, Hineni to the citizens of Israel.
Unfortunately, what seems to be missing is the call of Hineni by much of the world. We have allies in our battle to remove Hamas (especially the United States, led by President Biden), but it is so very painful to see signs of “From the River to the Sea, Palestine shall be free,” calling for the genocidal removal of the Jewish state. Surely college students and millions of other bystanders should realize that we are in the midst of a campaign to remove Hamas, the ISIS-equivalent, from our border.
I am a passionate believer in a two-state solution. I believe that both Jews and Palestinians have the right to national self-determination. Most Israelis share this belief. However, we cannot accept that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be seen through the simplistic, binary prism of oppressed-oppressors, let alone the false notion of Israel being a creation of European colonization. Zionism is the 2,500-year old movement of national liberation of the Jewish people, which sought to return to our ancestral homeland. The Jewish people are the first historically documented indigenous people returning to its homeland. This is NOT a binary conflict.
Citizens of the world must rise up and say, Hineni, and stand in opposition to the evil of Hamas and its ruthless, monstrous attack on Israel on October 7, and its pledge to carry out further massacres and ultimate aim to eliminate the State of Israel. Millions of citizens of the world must rise up and say, Hineni, and stand in opposition to the call to “Free Palestine” and the call to remove the State of Israel.
During World War II, much of the world, including leaders such as the Pope and President of the United States, stood silent even when they knew of the evil being carried out by the Nazis and their accomplices on European Jewry. While they may be considered bystanders to the crime, at the same time, over 26,000 Europeans were upstanders who risked their lives to save Jews.
Just as most of the Western world said Hineni after the heinous crime of 9/11, the world now must stand up and loudly say, “Hineni, we stand up and call for the removal of the evil of Hamas and for the immediate release of the hostages.”
As I pen these words on November 4, I am reminded of Yitzchak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister who was murdered by an Israeli extremist exactly 28 years ago today. Rabin was a leader who said Hineni many times. The last time, was when he spoke at the rally in Tel Aviv minutes before he was murdered: “I was a military man for 27 years. I fought so long as there was no chance for peace. I believe that there is now a chance for peace, a great chance.” In his heart and mind, he realized that it was the time to take risks and work toward peace.
So now, after writing this, I have found at least one of the words that I struggle to find – Hineni! We all need to stand up and say Hineni so that we can achieve our goals of removing Hamas and getting back our hostages, and beginning the process of rebuilding Israel after the traumatic, watershed Black Shabbat of October 7. It may take a long time, but we will, especially if we can all say Hineni.