Sermon by Rabbi Marc Katz of Congregation Beth Elohim
Sunday, January 14 2018
All Saints' Church
I want to start by saying how wonderful it is to be here today. Rev. Steven D. Paulikas has been a true friend to our congregation and has modeled what it means to be a neighbor. Not only did he open his doors for our 20s and 30s High Holy Day services but he reached out immediately after the events of Charlottesville, asking what he might do to support the Jewish community in the face of rising white supremacy.
Reverend Paulikas’ actions mimicked, to a large extent, the underlying message in this week’s old testament lectionary reading.
In it, a young Samuel is called by God. God has chosen him to be the next great prophet of the Jewish people. Born through the faith of his mother, who prayed with such fervor for his birth, that a nearby priest thought she was drunk, Samuel was destined for greatness.
And Samuel did not disappoint. Samuel became a Divine mouthpiece to his generation. He anointed Saul, the first king of Israel. He discovered David, giving him the strength and support he would need to conquer Goliath and move toward his own leadership. Though some prophets would speak louder, others more eloquently than Samuel, perhaps no prophet does more for the burgeoning Jewish nation and people than him.
Yet, his call is by no means smooth.
As we read, one night Samuel is asleep when he hears his name. Yet, Samuel is confused. He doesn’t realize that he is being summoned by God. Instead, he assumes it is the priest Eli, his mentor and teacher. “Here I am,” he answers as he rushes to his bedside. But Eli dismisses him. He hadn’t called him. Samuel must have been dreaming. God again calls, two more times, and it is only on the third occasion that Eli realizes it is God.
“Go, lie down” he tells young Samuel, “and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, God, for your servant is listening.”
Soon God does call and Samuel answers, ready to do God’s will and serve God.
The power of this story is not in God’s call, but in Samuel’s answer. At each stage, whether he thinks it is Eli crying out or God, Samuel is ready. He is prepared to respond with one word that for all of Biblical history has symbolized willingness and zeal...that of hineini or “here I am.”
Four times in Bible, God has called and someone responds with Hineini. In addition to Samuel's story, Abraham too responds hineini, here I am. He does so after God asks him to sacrifice his son Isaac atop Mount Moriah. In his eagerness he sets out early ready to do the task until God sends an angel to stop him at the 11th hour.
Jacob answers hineini, here I am, when God appears to him after he has wrestled with an angel and reunited with his estranged brother, ready to reward him for his faithfulness and love.
Moses replies hineini...here I am, as well. He is standing before the Burning Bush and God is asking if he might travel to Egypt to tell Pharoah to let the enslaved Israelites go free.
The Bible is full of accounts where God calls out to humans, asking for attention, love, readiness, and faith. But only four times is God greeted with the alacrity of hineini. Only four times is someone willing enough to be radically open to the call. When someone like Samuel says hineini, he is really saying, “Yes. I am ready for what is to come, my whole self, fully present in what is next.”
Reflecting back on the power of responding hineni, one of our modern day prophets Leonard Cohen once explained:
That declaration of readiness, no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul. We all are motivated by deep impulses and deep appetites to serve, even though we may not be able to locate that which we are hoping to serve. So this is just a part of my nature and I think everybody else’s nature to offer oneself at the critical moment when the emergency becomes articulate. It’s only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate that willingness to serve.
As Leonard Cohen articulates, when we hear the call, we must, like Samuel be ready to serve. For some this call will come in a religious realm. We may be called to pray deeper, study harder, offer ourselves to Divine connection. But not everyone is as lucky as our prophets to get that call from God. Instead that call comes in a myriad of forms, so subtle we often miss them.
Part of the reason I’m here is because Reverend Paulikas watched the events of Charlottesville unfold and answered hineni to me. Compelled toward empathy, embracing community, he reached out, offering his ear and the support of his community, standing firm in his condemnation of hate.
And we can do the same.
Throughout my time at Congregation Beth Elohim, I’ve experienced a number of hineni moment.
I remember, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, a group of our congregants found themselves at the Park Slope Armory, feeding elderly members of our wider community who were displaced from their nursing homes because of rising flood waters. Those first nights, we prepared MREs, meals ready to eat, army rations, for the residents. With a stay that was indefinite, the organizers of the shelter knew that their elderly bodies could not tolerate the salt in these instant meals and they turned to us for help, asking if we could provide some egg salad for the next day’s meal.
We put out the call, not knowing what to expect.
Soon, eggs started arriving. People showed up with the alacrity and enthusiasm of Samuel. Their actions proclaimed that they were here, ready to help those in need.
By the end of the night we had 4000 eggs hard boiled, more than 100x the number we were expecting.
The next day’s feeding effort turned into a weeks-long relief project where we collected supplies, knocking on doors in Coney Island and running up dark staircases in Rockaway high-rises to deliver flashlights, food, and diapers to those in need.
During those weeks, I learned more in my early rabbinate about the power of showing up than perhaps any other time to date. The call came. All of those in need silently cried out, “Where are you?” Lucky we heard them just enough to respond, “Here we are”
A year ago, I was once again moved to see my community answer hineni.
The day after the election, when New Yorkers were hugging strangers and the subways were ominous and silent, our Senior Rabbi, Rachel Timoner had the idea to open up our sanctuary, twice. The first was for healing. Soon people were singing and swaying, crying and meditating together in community. Each person stood ready to support their neighbor, to hold them in their struggle and whisper, “I am here”
Then, a few days later, Rabbi Timoner and our councilman Brad Lander put out the call for a communal conversation about justice. How might we #GetOrganized and work to assure a better world? The call was subtle. A few facebook posts. But people were listening. Each answered “Here I am” with their feet and within hours our sanctuary of 1200 was completely full with ideas and passion, much of which is continuing on a year later.
And once again, I got to see Samuel reincarnate. He stood among those activists, just as he sat beside those in need of comfort and among those Sandy volunteers. His legacy is was our mandate, to open our ears to voices around us and prepare to respond with love.
But Samuel is not our only model in history. Our annals are full of those for whom hineni spills from their lips, be it Henry David Thoreau, Jesus, Gandi, and of course MLK.
Especially this weekend, the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. compels all who see injustice in the world to answer, raising our voices as Samuel did and responding “here I am.” If as Dr. King states, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere” then it is each of our mandate to listen closely to the calls of bigotry and hatred, ignorance and arrogance, prejudice and enmity. Then, so disquieted by their din we become obligated to raise our voices to match their pitch.
For MLK and all of those who converged on Selma and Birmingham, Montgomery and Atlanta their call came in many forms. For some it was in the form of angry white mobs, national guardsman, and bands of KKK. For others it came the faces of scared children, grieving parents, and battered protesters. For some it was through their own experiences. For others it was through learning the stories of their neighbors. But for anyone who answered hineini, here I am, it was precisely because they listened deep enough to the voices within and among them to know that silence was not an option.
They took to heart the maxim by Dr. King that we must answer the calls around us. As he states, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Everyday is a choice point. Each moment we face images and voices crying out to us and we must decide how to act. Will we turn toward them in openness and love or away in callous indifference. How ready are we to act?
Will we answer hineini to the homeless and hungry walking the street beside us?
We we answer hineini to the stranger and immigrant seeking home and hope?
Will we answer hineini to the oppressed, hated for how they look, how they worship, or who they love?
Will we stand, ready to protect our natural world?
We will stand, ready to heed the call of those in prison, trapped in the bondage of our justice system?
Will we stand ready, with open arms and open hearts to greet those in our midst who desperately need to hear that we are here.
Dr. King taught, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness”
If we train ourselves to respond, when the call comes, it is no choice at all. Hineni will roll from our tongue imbued with love, and we will stand on the shoulders of Samuel, ready to act as prophets for a better world.