Kol Nidre 2019

Posted on Oct 10, 2019

Hineni: Leadership, Humility, and Truth-Telling

Remarks by Chancellor Eisen at JTS Yom Kippur Services

I would like to focus my remarks this evening on a passage that stands at the very center of the Yom Kippur service—one that has been on my mind even more than usual as I approached this High Holiday season, my last as the chancellor of JTS. It is a passage that, I believe, has enormous significance for all of us in 2019 as we confront unprecedented personal and societal challenges, including the daunting challenge of saving life on planet earth as we know it.

The passage I have in mind is the Hineni prayer that will be recited tomorrow afternoon by the shaliah tzibur, the prayer leader, at the start of the repetition of the Musaf Amidah: 

Here I stand, impoverished in merit, trembling in the presence of the One who hears the prayers of Israel. Even though I am unfit and unworthy for the task, I come to represent Your people Israel and plead on their behalf. Therefore, gracious and merciful Adonai, awe-inspiring God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, I pray that I might successfully seek compassion for myself and those who send me.

One sees immediately why this prayer has particular relevance for a Jewish leader. But I suspect that it probably resonates to some degree with everyone. All of us bear responsibilities that at times test our character as well as our capabilities. It’s hard to be a responsible and loving parent, spouse, or friend; it’s not easy to do the right thing consistently as an employer, or an employee;  board-members of non-profit and for-profit entities alike are sometimes weighed down by the burdens they carry on their shoulders. One misses the mark, goes astray, keeps one’s head down when one should step up—failings captured in the Hebrew word het, normally translated far too simplistically as “sin.” So while the words of the Hineni date from the late Middle Ages, and the author of the prayer is unknown, I suspect the shadow of unworthiness haunts all of us at one time or another just as much as it weighed on our ancestors. The prayer speaks to us and for us. How can we seek and secure compassion from God this Yom Kippur if we have been deaf to the cries of our neighbors? How can a leader get prayer right, or institutional policy right, if he or she has not done right by friends and family?

I think that doubt is what drives the poet to plead, in the second paragraph of the Hineni, “Do not charge the community with my failings and let them not bear the guilt of my transgressions, though I have missed the mark and transgressed.” The shaliah tzibur prays that God receive his or her prayer as if it came from someone worthier—a person whose voice is sweet, presumably reflecting the character inside, and who is held in good opinion by the community. If they have not been disappointed, perhaps God will not be either. I read the words me’urav beda’at haberiyot not to mean “pleasant” or “sweet” but “involved with and responsible for” those whom he or she leads in prayer, sharing their circumstances, proud of their achievements, complicit in their failings, and participating fully in their destiny, as any good leader does.

Read this way, the prayer makes perfect sense to me. I treasure it dearly, as I suspect many of you do. But I must admit that for the longest time I did not like the Hineni prayer at all. It seems to challenge the worth of the pray-er, of the congregation, and of humanity in general. A lot of the Yom Kippur liturgy seems to do this. In a few moments we will chant a beloved piyyut, Ki Hinei Kahomer Beyad Hayotzer, which compares you and me to clay that is molded by the potter, to stones in the hand of a mason, to iron in the hands of blacksmith, etc. These metaphors of passivity are not true to my experience of what it is to be a human being—and the theology they seem to express is not one that I want to embrace. 

A prominent German philosopher of the 19th century named Ludwig Feuerbach, whose analysis of religion had a huge impact on the young Karl Marx, argued in his book The Essence of Christianity (translated into English by none other than George Eliot, by the way) that the more we human beings utter praise to God and denigrate our own worth, the less capable we will be of acting as moral agents to do good work in the world. If God is all-powerful, we lack all power and agency. If God is all-knowing, we are ignorant. If God is all good, we are hopeless sinners. “To enrich God, man must be poor; that God may be all, man must be nothing.” 

The Hebrew poet Yehudah Amichai echoed that conviction in a beautiful poem entitled El Malei Rahamim that I have never forgotten since I heard Amichai himself recite it to my ulpan class at Hebrew University in 1975. The poem begins with a wonderful play on words: “Ilmalei El malei rahamim—if it were not the case that God is full of compassion, hayu harahamim banu velo rak bo.

“If God was not full of mercy/Mercy would have been in the world/ Not just in Him.”

Amichai, a humanist to the core, wants you and I to be the dispensers of mercy in the world. God’s monopoly on mercy harms us. There must be mercy in us, and not just in God.

Needless to say, I no longer read the Hineni prayer, or any other prayer in the mahzor or the siddur, this way. Quite the opposite.  The point of a Jewish leader saying these words, at a critical moment in the Yom Kippur service when so much is at stake, is to declare Hineni—here I am—as Abraham did when God appeared one day with a test that he did not want or need, and Moses did at the burning bush when summoned to the task of leading the Israelites out of Egypt, as Adam and Eve did not do when God presented them with the fundamental existential question, Ayeka—where are you?    

Many of the trials that come our way in the course of life present us with the opportunity to say Hineni—or to avoid saying it. Countless human beings have said “yes” over the centuries to God, to their families, or to their communities, when called upon to undertake responsibilities that stretched, challenged, or endangered them. Many others have of course failed to say the word, ducked the challenge, and let themselves and others down. Yom Kippur calls on us to stand up and not duck.

Hineni, I am here for you, I am present, take me, send me, use me, I am at your service. We demand this sort of attention from the people we love when we call upon them—and it is demanded of us when we try to encounter God, however we understand God, or attempt to look deeply at ourselves, in prayer. The point of the self-deprecation we utter in our prayers is that it takes a healthy dose of humility in a person to lead to recognition of one’s weaknesses, inadequacies, and blind spots, and acceptance of that fact that I am not the center of the universe but that much depends upon me nonetheless. It takes all this to summon the kind of quiet confidence required when life and the well-being of a person or a community are on the line. This is especially true of those entrusted with leadership. Braggarts are the last thing one wants at such moments of need. Overweening ego gets in the way of courage as well as of clarity. Far better to depend on someone who can admit that they are tired—and bless God for giving strength to the weary. We want to be cared for by people who fear they are not up to the task before them, summon the necessary courage, and thank God daily for “providing me with all I need.” Avinu malkenu, hatanu lefanekha. We have fallen short before you, God. Ein banu ma’asim. We don’t have it in us to do what is required. Aseh imanu hesed. Do deeds of loving-kindness with us.

Solomon Schechter titled his 1912 address to JTS graduates  “Humility and Self-sacrifice as Qualifications of the Rabbi.”  Schechter was not known for meekness or passivity and he did not value those traits in the leaders he trained. But he understood that leaders earn the loyalty of co-workers and followers by demonstrably serving a Higher Cause rather than themselves.  They must not permit ego to get in the way of service. To me this message—articulated beautifully by the Hineni—is the very opposite of the inculcation of subservience that Feuerbach saw in prayer. I think the kind of humility that the Hineni prayer encourages actually empowers us by opening our hearts, piercing through the noise all around us, and getting us to focus on the work of tefillah, tzedakah and teshuvah. The point of all the confessionals we will utter this evening and tomorrow is not to convince us that we are worthless but to get us to look at ourselves honestly and understand that, for all our failings, we can do a lot more good than we have in the past.

An enormous amount depends on this right now. I am afraid that some people, including some political leaders, are responding to the threat hanging over the well-being of humanity from climate change with a kind of fatalism or even nihilism—and I fear that trust in God to solve the problem is used by some individuals of faith to justify human inaction. “What can mere mortals do about this problem anyway? It is far too big for us,” they seem to say. I was distressed to read the assurance of a prominent Christian fundamentalist that we do not need to worry about climate change because God promised Noah that God would never again let the world be destroyed. A Michigan congressman told his constituents two years ago that “As a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us. And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.”  There is theological basis for these attitudes, I fear: a conviction of human insufficiency grounded in notions of original sin . . . Last week I happened to read a statement formulated in 1999 by a joint commission of Catholics and Lutherans that declares that “all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation . . . for as sinners, they stand under God’s judgment and are incapable of turning by themselves to God to seek deliverance.” 

Theology is a tricky business, I realize. The balance between “grace” and “works” is a complicated matter in Judaism as well as in Christianity. But most streams of our tradition place the emphasis on partnership between God and humanity, on covenant that binds us in joint responsibility for creation. The refrain of the piyyut which compares us to clay in the hands of the potter calls upon God to “recall the Covenant”—a pact requiring human moral agents who take responsibility for the world.  Maimonides stresses over and over again in the “Laws of Teshuvah” that human beings are free to do good, or the opposite. Each of us can be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jeroboam.

Everyone in this room understands how much this confidence matters when we resolve to do better this year than we have in the past. And I think we recognize too how much the future of the planet depends upon leaders and societies taking responsibility, exercising agency, believing in human capability, and demonstrating resolve. If we are mere clay to be molded, stone to be broken, iron to be forged; if we are totally “unfit and unworthy,”  then, truly, all we can do is throw ourselves on God’s mercy.  There may be some Jews who endorse this position. I do not and I would urge us not to read the Yom Kippur liturgy that way.

I want to dwell for a few moments on one final phrase of the Hineni prayer that I take with utmost seriousness:  ha’emet vehashalom ehavu—love truth and love peace. 

All of us know what it means to purchase peace at the expense of truth. Sometimes that practice can be virtuous. Jews talk about shalom bayit, peace in the home, achieved through not always getting your way with parents or spouse or children, and not always speaking your mind. There’s a famous midrash that has the angels warning God that if human beings are created they are going to lie, cheat, and generally trample on truth, the “seal of God.” God hurls truth to the ground and creates humanity. There are times when treaties between nations depend upon ambiguities of language and a generous dose of hypocrisy;  peace is attained at the price of truth, or at very least of clarity.  But we know as well that marriages and friendships founded on lies often do not work for very long. That is true for communities and societies too. Personal integrity, now as always, is the very first quality of a true leader. If people don’t know what you stand for, they cannot stand with you or behind you. A public stance that denigrates the importance of truth is just as destructive for a society as a policy that scoffs at the need for peace. Moses Mendelssohn concluded his 1783 essay Jerusalem, the very first work in the corpus of modern Jewish thought, with a plea to the rulers of his day for tolerance of religious difference in the wake of centuries of religious warfare. He quoted the same words from the prophet Zechariah (8:19)  that we find in the Hineni prayer: “Love truth! Love peace!”

There are not a lot of political leaders these days who are models of personal integrity, sad to say. Sadder still, there are religious leaders who not only betray the value of truth but use religion to stir up hatred and violence, thereby violating the cause of peace as well. A substantial segment of the American population, perhaps having become inured to political lies over many years,  seems to accept untruth as a way of life for politicians. We are urged by some well-meaning individuals and groups to keep quiet about what we know to be true, or at least tone down the calls for action on climate change, in order to achieve a national shalom bayit. Let’s work on getting along, we are told; let’s find consensus; let’s give “peace” preference over truth. 

I do not understand—really, I don’t understand—how any government can hope to do good for the country, let alone save the planet, if it squelches scientific facts about climate change or poison in the air or water. And religion certainly cannot help us if it lies. Rabbi Ed Feinstein put this beautifully in a meditation on Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment.  “Judgment is not about punishment. Judgment is a search for truth about the self . . . Judgment aims to reveal the lies we tell ourselves.” I am haunted, as a teacher of Judaism,  by the question a teenager asked me from the back row of a Baltimore synagogue one evening about a decade ago: “But Professor Eisen, what is true?”

We owe each other truth, on Yom Kippur and every other day.  Teachers of Judaism, leaders of our community, owe it to our students and our constituents. The Hineni declares that we cannot escape the hard work of reconciling the search for truth with the quest for peace. Deception and discord interfere with the work of the spirit. They lower us when we want to be raised up. They make us feel cheap when we most need to convince ourselves that we, and our words, and our actions all have real weight.  Little lies tear apart families. The big lies told by governments undercut our trust that the world rests on solid foundations and can be more just than it is today.

Let me say in conclusion, then, in the spirit of my answer to that teenager in Baltimore: I do not know how God works, and therefore do not know how prayer works; I cannot tell you what it means to say in the very last words of the Hineni, that God is shome’a tefilah—one who hears and answers prayer. But here is what I believe: that we share the realm of being with a Being above, beyond and pervading all of being; that the Holy One hears and answers prayer in a manner that you and I will never understand; and that one of the ways in which the Lord of Being operates in the world is through the love that we give one another, the righteousness that we preform, and the forgiveness we exchange. I am deeply grateful for a Torah that insists (Deut. 29:28), right after it tells us that the ultimate secrets of the world belong to God alone, that the “revealed things” are in our hands.   We do know something, in the midst of our vast ignorance, and these “revealed things” give us the ability to do the good deeds that God requires of us. We can do tzedakah. We can do tefillah.  We can do teshuvah. We can be present for one another and step up when needed by the world. As imperfect as we are, as inadequate as our capabilities are, we can and do respond hineni when called upon. Yom Kippur is designed to help us do that in our personal life as well as in the public life of our society and our country.

I wish us all an easy fast, an open heart, a meaningful Yom Kippur, and a good and sweet new year.