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Rosh Hashanah 5780

Rabbi Matthew D. Cohen


One of my favorite Budweiser commercials is the one where a Texan walks into a local New Jersey bar. Everyone in the bar acknowledges the Texan with the customary New Jersey greeting, “How you doin?” The Texan replies, “I’m just fine, thanks for asking. My brother in law picked me up at the airport today, what a mighty fine airport y’all have, and the people are so nice.” Then another local walks into the bar and greets everyone with the customary “How you doin?” and the Texan politely responds, “I’m fine, thanks for asking! My brother in law just picked me up from the airport today and the people are so nice.”

The reaction by everyone in the bar at this point clearly indicated how annoyed they were with the Texan. Quite simply, they didn’t really want to know how he was really “doin”.

This commercial isn’t too far off; not just in New Jersey but in our everyday lives, even here in Texas. Do we really want to know how someone is doing when we ask them, “How are you doin?” How many of us walk by someone in the hall here at Temple and say “Hey, how are you?” and just keep walking? What is the message we are sending to the other person? Whether intended or not, the message is, I really don’t care to know. I just want to acknowledge your presence.

Now, some of you may be saying to yourselves, “I really do want to know how someone is doing when I ask them ‘How are you?’” I commend you on that. However, at some point in the past or even as recent as this morning, we all have all passively greeted another person. It goes along with hello, but hello feels like it needs more - but not too much more.

A few weeks ago, as I was walking into a UTMB medical building, sick and coughing, a man at the door said, “Good morning, how are you?” My response, “I’m good, how are you?” Wait a minute, I’m not good! I’m sick and feel pretty crummy right now. On top of being sick, the High Holy Days are right around the corner which means I have a lot to prepare. And on top of that, I am working hard to get our congregation back into our building in time for Rosh Hashanah.  What I could have said to this gentleman was, “Good morning, thanks for asking. I’ll need at least an hour with you. Let me go tell the doctor that I will be a little late and I’ll be right back to tell you how I am really doing.” 

In addition to not wanting to know how someone is really doing we also don’t really want to answer someone honestly when we respond, “I’m fine and you?”

Why not? What’s stopping us?

I attended the ISJL Jewish educators conference this summer and at the opening plenary the speaker started by asking us to turn to the person next to you and ask them “How are you doing?” and I want the other person to answer honestly - let them know what’s really going on. The Budweiser commercial immediately came to my mind. I turned to the lady sitting next to me and asked her, “How are you doing?” She opened up to me in ways that she probably never would have to a total stranger. She was not in a good place. She was dealing with some major issues at the time and by the end of our conversation I gave her a hug and told her I am here if you need to talk. Granted, she may have felt more comfortable opening up to me because she knew I was a rabbi indicated by the big word “Rabbi” on my name tag.

However, she may not have just come up to me at any given time of the weekend and say, “Hey, you are a rabbi, I need someone to talk to.” This exercise opened up an opportunity to create a real point of connection between the two of us. It was evident by the din of the room that this exercise fostered many points of real contact. It was the perfect way to bring 200 people together at a convention.

The purpose of this exercise was to encourage ourselves to be vulnerable. We tend to stay in our comfort zones and this exercise forced us to put ourselves out there - as far as we were willing to go with a complete stranger. As we engaged in this exercise of vulnerability two words came to my mind, the first was the most important word in our Jewish vocabulary.

Our Torah portion homes in on Abraham’s most vulnerable moment in his life. Abraham has been on spiritual journey riddled with vulnerability. It began the day God called him to Lech Lecha, to leave his land, his birthplace, and his father’s home to a land that God will show him and vulnerability weaved throughout his lifetime of Divine tests and challenges. This morning, in an unconditional show of faith and in a place of unimaginable vulnerability, Abraham answered the Divine call to sacrifice his son Issac. As he is standing above his son who is bound to the rock, wielding the knife in his hand, an angel called out to him, Avraham, Avraham! His answer, “Heneini” Here I am.

Consider two modern moments of Heneini — as we say, ripped from the headlines — just last week.

The first wins the prize for best Heneini from a Jewish woman. Alex Borstein, the Emmy winning actress from the Marvelous Ms. Masel bore her heart and soul to the world when she dedicated her Emmy to her Mother and Grandmother. She said, “They are immigrants, they are Holocaust survivors. My grandmother was in line to be shot into a pit. She said, ‘What happens if I step out of line?’ [The guard] said, ‘I don’t have the heart to shoot you, but somebody will,’ and she stepped out of line. For that, I am here and my children are here. So step out of line, ladies. Step out of line!”  Alex Borstein’s words were heard by millions across the globe. Perhaps her willingness to be Heneini moved people’s hearts and souls to follow suit.

The second wins the prize for best Heneini by a Swedish teenage girl. Greta Thunberg, a 16 year old climate control activist, stood in front of world leaders at the UN and spoke her truth about the Climate Control Crisis facing our planet. Her words were honest, passionate, and poignant and they drew both praise and criticism. Greta Thunberg’s courage to be Heneini gave voice to a new generation. Her Heneini will inspire the people of her generation and beyond to take action, to speak their truth, and have the courage to be Heneini in their own way.

“Heneini,” “Here I am,” is indeed, the most important word in the Jewish vocabulary. Heneini goes beyond what we would say to a teacher while taking attendance. It is a holistic and intentional presence. We encounter Heneini numerous times throughout our Hebrew scriptures. Esau responds “Henieni” when Isaac requests him to go out and hunt him game so that he may bless him. Jacob responds “Henieni” to Isaac’s request to come to his deathbed and receive the blessing. Moses responds “Heniei” when God calls out to him. Even God responds “Henieni” to us in Isaiah 58 when we called out to God. Each instance of Heneini, both biblically or as recent as last week, exemplifies intentionality and unconditional devotion. Each Heneini embodies the definition of vulnerability. The exercise at the ISJL put us in that position of Heneini. Just like our biblical ancestors, our position of vulnerability opened up the opportunity to connect with one another on a deeper and more sacred level.

As the speaker continued his presentation, I felt that there was a critical element that needed to be addressed. I believe the key to truly creating that sacred Heneini connection for both the speaker and the listener is authenticity. 

Authenticity is what allows us to see the value in not only wanting to know how someone is doing when we ask them but also the value in answering that question openly when it is asked of us. Heneini is a two-way street. When we reach out to others with authenticity we are truly “Henini”. We are present for them. Our authenticity allows us to love and support one another in a safe and comfortable space. Our authenticity gives others permission to be vulnerable and open themselves up to us. And when one reaches out to us, authenticity is the key element that allows us to be Heneini for ourselves. We need to be true and authentic to ourselves. Perhaps we may be carrying a heavy load or emotional baggage that we need to release. When we trust others to help lighten our load -- to know how we are REALLY doing -- saying "Heneini" to ourselves enables us to no longer struggle alone. Our willingness to be our true and genuine selves encourages mutuality.  Our authenticity with both each other and ourselves is what will allow us to be Heneini.

Heneini is what calls us to take the time to see the divine in each other and in ourselves. Heneini builds and strengthens the relationships in our personal lives. Heneini is the key to making our community a Kehilah k’dosha, a sacred community.

As God makes the divine self Heninei to us, that means that we are then mandated ourselves to say “Heneini” to God -- to authentically and intentionally make our sacred family thrive, and to be Heneini to ourselves in deepening our own Jewish lives.

Let us reflect on the missed opportunities to be Heneini in this past year. What will be our Heneini moments in the year to come? How will these moments make meaning of our relationships with each other, with God, and with ourselves. Let us just imagine the potential for deeper and more sacred connections that come from a simple Texas, “Howdy. How are y’all doin’?” Imagine the impact we can make by taking the courage to make ourselves vulnerable, be it in the quiet moments of a greeting or in a loud voice standing up for what we believe in like Alex Borstein and Greta Thunberg. As we begin to create new memories and experiences in our beautifully remodeled building, let us begin with the most important word in our Jewish vocabulary. May our Heneini help foster and strengthen our Kehilah k’dosha and ultimately be the inspiration to bring that Heneini out into the world!

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