What is the most important word in the Bible?
I nominate the word Hineini. It means “here I am” and so much more. We read it often when God calls on someone to do an important and challenging task. It appears 178 times in the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible).
Abraham says it to God, to an angel, and to his son Isaac. Each is a significant moment. Moses says it to God in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, when God calls to him from the burning bush.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz writes: “In the Torah, each time the word Hineini is used, it signifies a turning point, a potentially life-changing moment requiring decision, action and resolution.”
I have read a great deal of commentary about this word , but the most cogent came from 13-year-old Charlie Getman, grandson of members of my congregation.
During his bar mitzvah speech, Charlie said that Hineini means “I am here; Where should I be and what should I do?”
He understood that when called to shoulder a burden, saying “I am here” involves a promise to act, look forward, anticipate future needs, and be ready to take on the task. In that, he is echoing the great 12th century French commentator Rashi, who called Hineini the language of humility and readiness.
And he also is echoing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we will observe on Monday. On the day before he was murdered, Dr. King gave a speech in which he considered what he would say to God, if offered a chance to live at any moment in history.
He reflected on several options, and then chose to live in the present, looking forward to the immediate future. He said, “I know that it is only when it is dark enough that one can see the stars…. I am happy that God allowed me to live right now, so I can see what is unfolding.”
Saying Hineini is not easy. It involves commitment and courage. It means that you are willing to face the unknown and do your best, whatever happens. May we be blessed to follow in the footsteps of Abraham, Moses, Dr. King, and Charlie Getman.
With gratitude to Rabbi Adam Greenwald, who wrote about this last speech of Dr. King’s in an essay published by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. You’ll find it here.