“Saying Hineini Across the Divide”, Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon, Rabbi Renni Altman

(Posted for Rabbi Renni Altman)

“Saying Hineini Across the Divide”
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779
Rabbi Renni S. Altman

Jack was an atheist, but he went to synagogue religiously, every Saturday morning.  His grandson watched this and knowing his grandfather’s strong feelings, was very confused.  Finally, one day he asked him, “Grandpa, I don’t understand it.  You say you are an atheist, but you go to synagogue every week.  How can you pray if you don’t believe in God?  Jack answered, “My boy, I don’t go to synagogue to talk to God; I go to synagogue to talk to Goldberg.”

Religion is really about relationships.  That is especially true in Judaism.  If one Hebrew word could capture the essence – and sometimes challenges – of being in real relationship, it is the word Hineini – one word that means “Here I am.”

Some of you may remember this word from Hebrew school as the answer when the teacher took attendance – Hineini – meaning simply, I’m here, I’m present. In the Bible, the term Hineini takes on much greater significance.  Altogether, Hineini appears fouorteen times in the Hebrew Bible.  Three of those instances are in the powerful Torah reading we read this morning, the

Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, including the very first time that this phrase is uttered.  Though Abraham appears on the scene much earlier, it is only here, when he is called to his last and most challenging of ten trials that his relationship with God is put to its greatest test.

With the first Hineini, Abraham responds to God’s call, without even knowing what he would be asked to do.  It is a statement of absolute readiness to act on behalf of another.

With the second Hineini, Abraham responds to the call of his son, “Avi – My father” as they walk up the mountain together.  It is the response of one who is present for another, even in times of great stress and difficulty.  Abraham does not reveal the potential horrors of what lies ahead, concerned here only for his son.

With the third Hineini, Abraham responds to the call of the angel stopping him from committing the unthinkable. So intent is Abraham on fulfilling his understanding of God’s word that the angel must call out to him twice, “Avraham, Avraham!” Here, Hineini is the response of one awakening to the reality of what he is about to do.  It is the response of one who is trying to be fully present in two roles:  Abraham, the believer, present to God, while at the same time to be Abraham, the father, present to his son, Isaac.

In his study of the meaning of Hineini, Dr. Norman Cohen, professor of midrash at HUC-JIR, concludes: “Hineini, in part, has to do with sacrificing for the other, and every time it appears it forces us to consider the nature of our relationships.”[1]  He posits three primary meanings to the response Hineini:  one; it indicates an ability to be present for and receptive to others; two, it indicates a readiness to act on behalf of others; and, three, it indicates a willingness to sacrifice for someone or something higher.

During these Yamim Noraim, as we reflect on our lives and consider where we have missed the mark, most of us, I’m sure, think first and foremost about the various relationships in our lives and where, too often, we feel that we may have fallen short of our best.  We strive to say Hineini, “I’m here for you” with full integrity in all of our relationships but we know how challenging that can be, even in the best of circumstances.  Life’s demands pull us in so many directions. What family with working parents doesn’t struggle to achieve that ever-elusive work life balance?  The normal ups and down of family dynamics test us at different points in our lives, in some painful cases to an extreme.  We want to be present but the other person isn’t ready or able to let us in; or, we don’t yet know how to be present in a way that they need.  We try to be there for our friends, but we can get so caught up in our lives, that we sometimes lose track of what is going on with others.

As a community, this congregation tries very hard to say Hineini to its members.  Through organized efforts such as the Reyut and Nachamu committees, we have set up structures to support one another through times of illness and loss.  Each Shabbat we share birthdays, anniversaries, and other personal simchas, creating an opportunity to connect and share in one another’s joys as well.  In the small gatherings that were held this summer and through numerous conversations I’ve had with people, I’ve heard very powerful stories from those for whom this community has truly become their “family” and about how this congregation has supported them through the most painful of times.  Of course, no one and no institution is perfect; surely, we have missed the mark at times and for this I would apologize to those who may have been hurt as we try to learn from past mistakes.  I would encourage those who remain on the periphery to become more engaged in the life of the congregation that you might benefit from the full sense of community that this congregation that strives to say Hineini to its members can offer to you.

This morning I want to focus on a particular challenge that we are facing in saying Hineini to one another that is impacting the nation as a whole, religious communities, our relationships at work and even our families.  I’m speaking of the ever-widening political divide in this country where people are less and less able to respond “hineini” – I can listen and be here for you – to those across the divide; in a growing number of cases, it seems, people cannot respond to one another at all.  This gap is eroding our society as a whole, leading to escalating negative attacks on one another, to dysfunctional government, and to divided communities, destroyed friendships and broken families.

An article in the New York Times from just a few weeks ago described some of these situations: “A couple in Georgia, married two decades, won’t speak when the husband leaves his unwashed mug supporting President Trump in the sink; his wife refuses to touch it. A teenager eating at a Texas fast food restaurant had his “Make America Great Again” hat ripped off his head and a drink thrown in his face. A mother in New England sought the help of professional conflict mediators during the holidays because her two daughters — one who was pro-Trump, the other anti-Trump — had stopped speaking to each other.”

We know that concerns about “the great American divide” are not new to this unique time period in American history.  Nonetheless, it feels as though we are at one of our lower points in national discourse and there doesn’t seem to be a way forward.

Studies by the Pew Research Center and others show a widening and toxic political gap.  A Pew Study from last summer noted that since the Trump presidency, the partisan gap has surpassed earlier record levels reached during the Obama presidency.  Partyism is now a bigger wedge between Americans than race, gender, religion or level of education. Today, sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party evokes feelings of not just frustration, but of fear and anger. Most politically engaged on either side see those in the other party as not just wrong, but “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” [2]

The pollster Frank Luntz recently commissioned a survey on the topic of political dialogue and division. In 1,000 interviews, he said, he found one result especially troubling: nearly a third of respondents said that they had stopped talking to a friend or a family member because of disagreements over politics and the 2016 election.

One organization on the front lines of trying to counter these trends is The National Institute for

Civil Discourse, a non-partisan center based at the University of Arizona’s School of Social and

Behavioral Sciences, founded in the aftermath of the 2011 assassination attempt on the former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.  The Institute provides lawmakers, businesses and communities with strategies to solve disagreements with civility and respect.    Reflecting on the 2012 presidential election, Executive Director Carolyn Lukensmeyer noted “We got not a single message from anybody in the country about incivility in the campaign process… [t]hen 2016 rolls around … This is now deep in our homes, deep in our neighborhoods, deep in our places of worship and deep in our workplaces… It really is a virus.”[3]

Religious communities are not immune to this divide and these feelings.  Rare is the synagogue whose very identity is defined by being either left or right, blue or red.  Most of us are various shades of purple.  Certainly, Reform congregations such as ours have become more diverse politically over the years and while we accept diversity in religious practices, it is much more challenging when it comes to political points of view.

For some the answer is to avoid the challenging issues altogether, to keep the synagogue as a sanctuary, a safe space away from anything that might hint of controversy.  I agree that the synagogue should be a sanctuary and a safe space, but not as an escape from the outside world.  Judaism has taught us the opposite, as we learn in the Talmud: “A person may only pray in a house with windows…”[4] We pray with windows so that our gaze can be towards the heavens, but so, too, do windows bring the outside world in; we cannot avoid it.  In Judaism, we find the sacred not by escaping to some monastic life meditating in the mountains; rather, we find the sacred by dealing with the challenges of daily existence and bringing the obligation to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy people” to those challenges.  The Torah passage we will read on Yom Kippur known as the Holiness Code, Leviticus 19, reminds us that we strive for holiness in our relationships with one another by being fair in our business practices, through our obligation to care for the stranger, the poor, the widow and the orphan, by not dealing deceitfully with one another, by being responsible for one another, and by loving our neighbor as ourselves.  If we do not address how we can bring our values to bear on the challenges of our lives and in our world, in a way that invites everyone into the conversation, then the Torah, our ancient teachings and Judaism as a whole will become irrelevant.  Our faith provides our moorings, our moral grounding in a world that is more and more unmoored.  Judaism can help us to navigate these very rough waters.

We, too, have a long history of communal divisions.  You see, even as Judaism and Jewish law developed, it was never monolithic as we might imagine it to have been.  There were always multiple houses of study led by different rabbinic scholars who reached different conclusions regarding questions of Jewish practice.  Throughout the Mishnah and Talmud, we find records of debates between rabbis followed by the statement:  and the halakhah (the law) is according to Rabbi Ploni.  If the law is according to one interpretation, why record the minority opinions at all?  Because they still had a place within the Jewish community and, therefore, within the records.

Among the most famous pairs of rabbis in the time of the Mishnah was Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai, each the head of a different school.  They disagreed about practically everything and rare was the time that a ruling was according to Shammai.  Still, they had respect for one another as is recorded in the Talmud:

…for three years there was a dispute between the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel, the former asserting, “the halachah is in agreement with our views,” and the latter contending, “the halachah is in agreement with our views.” Then a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed,“both are the words of the living God, but the halachah is in agreement with the rulings of the School of Hillel.”  Since, however, both are the words of the living God, what was it that entitled the School of Hillel to have the halachah fixed in agreement with their rulings?  Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of the School of Shammai and were even so [humble] as to mention the actions of the School of Shammai before theirs.[5]

Elsewhere in the Talmud we learn that even though they disagreed with each other’s rulings and had different interpretations for some Jewish practices:

The School of Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the families of the School of Hillel, nor did the School of Hillel refrain from marrying those of the School of Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the scriptural text, “you must love truth and peace.” (Zechariah 8:19)[6]

Sadly, too many within the Jewish world today are not following these ancient practices!

The following teaching from Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav, one of the most beloved and influential of the 18th century Chassidic masters, can be a guide for us today:

The essence of shalom is to unite two opposites. Therefore, do not be alarmed when you meet someone whose opinions are diametrically opposed to yours, causing you to believe that it is absolutely impossible to live with him in peace. Similarly, when you see two people of extremely contrasting natures, do not say that it is impossible to make peace between them. On the contrary, the very essence of peace is to strive for harmony between opposites, just as God makes peace in the heavens between the contrasting elements of fire and water.[7]

It is my fervent prayer that as a nation we can find ways to achieve some harmony, to bridge the divide that is tearing us apart, so that we can bring out the best in one another as opposed to the worst.  So, too, do I pray that if you find yourself in a similar situation to the respondents in the survey who have lost friendships or who aren’t speaking to relatives because of this political divide, that you can find a way to reach out and rebuild those fractured relationships for the greater whole that is shalom.

My concern this morning is about us, Vassar Temple.  How do we as a congregation build upon the strong foundation of community that exists here to bridge some of that divide, lest we will either move closer to irrelevance, unable to discuss or act on many issues of concern, or we will create an atmosphere where some people may no longer feel welcome in their own spiritual home.   I know that these are stark choices and I’m not saying that this is where we are, but I fear that this is where we will be heading if we do not find a way to become a true sanctuary, a sacred space where we can say Hineini to one another, that we can talk about difficult issues even when we disagree, and that we can find common ground upon which we can act to live out the values and teachings of our faith.

First, we need to try to be able to talk to one another and to understand one another.  I have found the work of a social psychologist, Dr. Jonathan Haight, and a sociologist, Dr. Arlie Hochschield, most enlightening in trying to understand some of what is behind the current political divide.

In his groundbreaking research, Haight explores the processes by which we make moral judgments, fundamental decisions that shape our view of the world.   We actually use two different processes of cognition:  intuition and reasoning; and, while we might like to think that we use our powers of reason and intellect to make such decisions, Haight discovered that, in fact, it is our emotions that guide us in making quick, instinctive moral judgments.  Our powers of reason only come into play once we have already made our decision to justify them afterwards.  He uses the metaphor of a rider and an elephant to describe how the mind functions here.  The rider represents the controlled process, such as reasoning and intellect; the elephant represents

the automatic processes, such as emotion and intuition.  (Yes, I said an elephant.  Haight explains that he chose the elephant over the horse because elephants are bigger and smarter, a better representation of the strength of the automatic processes that run human minds.)  Though the name, rider, might imply other, the rider does not control the elephant; rather, it is the elephant who controls the rider.   The rider is really just the spokesperson for the elephant, finding justifications for what the elephant has done or will do next.  Haight gives an example from his own life of a time when his wife complained that he had left dirty dishes on the counter that morning, something she has asked him not to do numerous times before.   Haight, who believes that lying is wrong and often chastises his wife for exaggerating in her stories, finds himself coming up with a very reasonable explanation for having done so, except that it is all a lie.  He later realizes that because he doesn’t like to be criticized as soon as he heard the criticism coming, his inner elephant started to react by claiming innocence and then the rider jumped in with all kinds of justifications that sounded reasonable, though not true.

In his book, The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haight applies this process of reasoning to the divisions we see in our society today.  If we are going to understand people across the political divide or have any hopes of changing someone’s mind on an issue, we need to better understand the forces behind their intuitive responses to reaching their decisions or in Haight’s terminology, “[we]’ve got to talk to their elephants.”[8]

Haight references Henry Ford who taught, “If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.”[9]  So, too, does this apply to conversations on moral or political issues. We need to be able to see things from the other person’s angle as well as our own.  Haight concludes, “And if you do truly see it the other person’s way – deeply and intuitively – you might even find your own mind opening in response.  Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.”[10]  Difficult, but not impossible.  “When does the elephant list to reason?” asks Haight, “The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people.  We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favor, just as we are quite good at finding errors in other people’s beliefs.  When discussions are hostile, the odds of change are slight…The elephant may not often change its direction in response to objection from its own rider, but it is easily steered by the mere presence of friendly elephants… or by good arguments given to it by the riders of those friendly elephants…”[11]

In other words, we need to get out of our echo chambers, not only by reading other opinion pieces or seeking out news from other sources, but most productively by trying to get to know people who are across the divide – and not on the other side of an argument, but by getting to know them as people first, getting to know their elephants.

The sociologist Arlie Hochschield does just this in her book, Stranger in Their Own Land.

Hochschield, an admittedly political liberal from the very blue city of Berkeley, CA, had been watching the growing political divide for some years when she concluded that she could not understand those on the other side of the divide from a distance; she needed to get to know the people who were completely dumbfounding her.  She decided to focus on one issue, the environment, and in one area, in and around Lake Charles, Louisiana.  In the course of five years of research and ten trips to the area, Hochshield spent time in deep conversation in people’s homes and work places where they spoke openly and shared their stories.  “As a sociologist I had a keen interest in how life feels to people on the right –that is, in the emotion that underlies politics.  To understand their emotions, I had to imagine myself into their shoes. Trying this, I came upon their “deep story,” a narrative as felt.”[12]

Referring to one of the first women in Louisiana who opened her home and her life story to her, Hochshield wrote “…it occurred to me that the kind of connection she offered me was more precious than I’d first imagined.  It built the scaffolding of an empathy bridge.  We, on both sides, wrongly imagine that empathy with the “other” side brings an end to clearheaded analysis when, in truth, it’s on the other side of that bridge that the most important analysis can begin.”[13]

Hochshield’s book is a powerful one and one I highly recommend.  It certainly opened my mind to understanding some people who are across the political divide from me and how neglected and lost they had felt from the political leadership of our country for so many years.

If we can create opportunities for real dialogue here, not with the goal of changing people’s minds, but simply to begin to understand why they think the way they do, we, too, can build empathy bridges, as we may then open our minds to some of the concerns of the “other” in a new way.  We can say Hineini.  We can say I disagree with you, but I now understand you.  Such conversations will strengthen us as a community and may lead us to find Bratslav’s harmony between opposites.  In doing so, perhaps we will also discover more ways to join hands and take action on issues of common concern to better our community, our country and our world.  I invite you to join with me in envisioning what might be small group conversations where we really listen to one another in a safe environment where we can speak freely and openly, without critique.  If you would like to partner with me in this venture or participate in such conversations, please let me know.

Just over a week ago our nation paid homage to Sen. John McCain, an elder statesman who spoke the language of Hineini (even if he didn’t actually know the word!)    First and foremost, he lived Hineini through his life of sacrifice for this nation, through both his military service and his political leadership.  He lived Hineini by doing what he believed was right, even going against his own political party to do so.  He lived Hineini when he defended his political opponent against racist charges because it was the right thing to do, even if it wasn’t the most expedient for his campaign.   He lived Hineini when he admitted his mistakes.  Personally, I disagreed with John McCain on many issues, but I have the greatest respect for him as a man of integrity and decency who was willing to put aside differences and reach across the aisle for the sake of what he believed was better for our nation.  His choreography of his own funeral was his final testament that a different form of political discourse is possible and preferable for the wellbeing of our country.  May he inspire other leaders to pursue that better path.  May he inspire us to respond to opportunities for service, to be willing to sacrifice – – even on a much lesser scale – for the good of others, to act on behalf of causes we believe are important, to reach across the divide and say Hineini.

The final three Hineini’s in the Bible are not uttered by any person; they are words of promise from God spoken through the prophet Isaiah.  Hineini is God’s promise to the Israelites of the ultimate redemption that will come when they change their selfish and hypocritical ways.  We will read one such passage on Yom Kippur morning, where Isaiah reminds us of the nature of the fast that God desires  – that when we fast we will also share our bread with the hungry, that we will reach out to those in need, that we will be willing to sacrifice for others, that we will no longer act in ways that exile us from one another.  When we can truly say Hineini, I am here for you, then our redemption will be at hand and then the promise of Isaiah will be fulfilled and God will respond to us, Hineini, Here I am.

Rabbi Renni Altman

Sources:

Cohen, Dr. Norman J., Hineini in Our Lives:  Learning how to respond to others through 14 Biblical texts and personal stories (Jewish Lights,2003),

Haight, Jonathan The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage Books, 2017)

Hochshield, Arlie Russell Strangers in Their Own Land:  Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press, 2016)

Peters, In a Divided Era, One Thing Seems to Unite:  Political Anger (New York Times, August 17, 2018)

Pew Research Center: Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016 (6/22/16) http://www.peoplepress.org/2016/06/22/partisanship-and-political-animosity-in-2016/

[1] Dr. Norman. J. Cohen, HIneini in Our Lives:  Learning how to respond to others through 14 Biblical texts and personal stories (Jewish Lights,2003), p. 4

[2] Pew Research Center: Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016 (6/22/16) http://www.peoplepress.org/2016/06/22/partisanship-and-political-animosity-in-2016/

[3] Ibid

[4] BT Berakhot 34b

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 14b

[7] Likkutei Etzot, Shalom, #10

[8] Jonathan Haight, The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, p. 57

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 58

[11] Ibid., p. 80-81

[12] Arlie Russell Hochshield, Strangers in Their Own Land:  Anger and Mourning on the American Right, p. ix

[13] Ibid., p. xi

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