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Hineini – Being Fully Present

By Rabbi Ted Reiter, Rosh Hashanah 5769/2008
What a year it has been. . . The summer of the “Stay-cation”. Home values are falling and gas prices are rising. Banks and airlines are open one day and closed the next. Elections are a month away. We continue our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hurricanes pound our coasts. Of course, the news yesterday. . . the bailout does not pass and our market plummets. Many of us are suffering physically and emotionally. We have ill loved ones. We have our own health challenges. We are exhausted and we are overwhelmed.
And still, here we are today in such amazing numbers. On the High Holy Days people come streaming to Temple in two shifts. I love it. To me, it is an affirmation of a 3500 year story, a thriving present-day community and a commitment to a future.
I recognize that it may not have been easy to get here today. We had to carefully arrange schedules, perhaps double our workload yesterday or over the weekend. We can only imagine what is waiting for us later in the week when we return to our offices. For some, we are so overwhelmed with personal, business and world events that it is a struggle just to be spending a few hours in this sanctuary this morning.
I have to confess, I have a vivid memory of sitting in synagogue when I was in Jr. High thinking, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could come here without missing a day of school?” My first inkling that I wanted to be a rabbi was one of convenience. If this was my job, I would already be here. Kind of like those signs for new housing developments on the highway that we see during a long drive, “If you lived here, you would already be home.”
But at the time, as I recognize now, it was probably more about my anxieties I created around sitting in synagogue rather than doing the things that I “needed” to be doing. It was about the overwhelm I was experiencing. And, if that is where my mind was – daydreaming or stressing about other things that I could have been doing – I guarantee you that I was not fully present in that service. Twenty five or so years later, I am ready to take responsibility for not being fully present at that service. Yes, I could point to the school pressures, or being easily distracted by those sitting around me, or even at the rabbi or the liturgy itself. But ultimately, being present is up to me.
This morning we will read the story of the Binding of Isaac. The whole episode begins with God calling to Abraham who responds “Hineini – here I am.” Our text is not real clear on what Abraham was doing when he heard God’s voice. But, I can almost guarantee you that if Abraham was fretting over his myriad of responsibilities as the leader of a growing clan, he would not have heard God’s voice that day. If he was distracted by “the real world” he would have missed, not just flunked the test, and perhaps he would have cut off his future – our future. Instead, Abraham was present and was able to respond to God, “Hineini! – here I am!” God says, “Avraham, Avraham . . .” And Abraham, knife in hand, says, “Hineini – here I am!”
How many of us are here today? How many of us are focused on the here and now, not fretting about the dinner we are hosting this evening, or the emails that keep buzzing on the blackberries Rabbi Ted Riter p2 in our pockets, or the soccer practice we are still going to try to squeeze in this evening? How many of us are fully present, treating this sanctuary as a “sanctuary”, a respite from the often crazy world?
I do not mean to put people on the spot today. I am thrilled that you are all here. And, I’ll take you however you come. What I would really like to do, is have you take this question with you outside of our synagogue – where it may be even more important. Thursday morning at work, I would like us to ask ourselves, are we really present? Are we really in the moment with our co- workers, with our customers, with our employees? This weekend with our family . . . are we really here with our kids, our partners, our friends? Or any time. . .are we really present for ourselves?
We live, these days, at a frenetic pace. From our youngest children to our oldest retirees, we are so programmed that we rush through life for reasons that we often cannot even explain.
When did it become so great to be busy? When did it become so acceptable . . . the norm? Somehow we have placed a value judgment on our state of busyness. And we try to one up each other.
“How are you?” / “Keeping busy.” / “Busy is good.”
Or how about this one: “I have a crazy week.” / “Oh, you think you have a crazy week, I. . .”
What we are really saying is: “How am I? I am stressed, out of balance, overwhelmed.” And this is almost code language these days for, “Isn’t this great!”
Perhaps this goes back to Chaucers, “Idle hands are the devil’s tools”?
I admit, I fall into this same trap. We have a need to prove ourselves. Our busyness justifies our value to our employer, co-workers, friends and community.
And, it is not necessarily the number of activities that we take on, but how we take them on. We have so fully bought into this belief in busyness that we no longer control our own lives. We have placed ourselves in the position of being slaves to an unknown master. We have allowed ourselves to believe that our kids need to be constantly on the go to build their resume, to provide a necessary distraction or to give us a bit of quiet. We have allowed ourselves to believe that adults will only value us if we are constantly in motion. And, it is not enough just to be busy, we have to make it seem like there is no way we are going to accomplish the tasks at hand. Only a superhero will be able to successfully conquer our schedule. Only God, God’s self, is burdened with more demands.
But we are missing something significant by doing this. By latching on to a life of busyness, we are missing the gift of presence.
Too often we read a page from a book or newspaper and do not remember what we have read. Too many times we drive to work, but are so tied up in our thoughts that we have a hard time recalling the drive. Too many of us are interrupted on the phone, in front of the TV, while we’re in a conversation with someone else, and we shift our face/voice toward someone else but do not shift our attention.
If we are multi-tasking we are not truly present. If we have our cell phones and blackberries on, we are not present. If, when someone else is speaking, we are formulating the next question or response, we are not present. And, if we are not present, will we miss God’s call? Maybe that is not such a big deal for some of us. But will we also miss the call of our children and our parents?
When I see people in overwhelm, when I recognize it in myself, I think back to Abraham. Are we missing the call?
At the beginning of the summer, Corey was invited to attend a conference at the University of Washington entitled, “No Time to Think.” The premise of the conference was that the latest advancements in information technology have made it possible to communicate and research more quickly and this has lead us to “information overload, to extreme busyness, to the fragmentation of attention, and to accelerated and even frantic modes of working and living.”i
And thus, no time to reflect, contemplate and think.
At first blush, I thought: exactly! But then I realized that pointing at technology is just a blame game like any other. “It is the fault of email that I feel so overwhelmed.” “I’m tethered to my office.” “I get 600 stations on my cable tv so I have to Tivo as much as possible.”
The truth is, technology is only a master of our time if we let it be so. Time, I believe, is infinitely expandable and contractible.
A few years ago Corey and I were in a car accident. Our light turned from red to a protected green arrow. I pulled into the intersection, and as if in slow motion I saw the car slamming into the front right corner of our car. And I felt us spinning. I stared into the eyes of the driver who hit us as his car flew through the air and rolled over and over and over again. The speed limit on that road was 50 mph and there were no skid marks. So, even if he were driving the limit, the whole experience could not have taken more than a few seconds. And yet, time had slowed down. I understand that movies and tv use anywhere from 24 to 60 frames per second. During that car accident, I saw each frame on its own.
So time can slow down: a car accident, waiting for an email to go through, even a rabbi’s sermon.
If time is therefore subjective, we become the masters and time becomes the slave rather than the other way around. If we can control how we relate to time, then we have the power to be present. And if we have the power to be present, we can hear the call of our children, our parents, our partners, and our God.
A couple of years ago Ekhart Tolle made a splash with his book the Power of Now: A guide to spiritual enlightenment. In it he argues that “now is all there ever is.” What a great concept. According to this teaching, there is no such thing as the past and the future, there is only now. And, when we understand this on a “being” level, not just a “doing” or “thinking” level, we open up new possibilities for our existence. 85 years ago Martin Buber had a similar idea that he called “I-thou”. Two thousand years ago Rabbi Hillel stated, “If not now, when”. And 35 hundred years ago Abraham said, “Hineini - Here I am. I am not distracted by what happened an Rabbi Ted Riter p4 hour ago or years ago. I am not overwhelmed about what will happen an hour from now or years from now. All I am focused upon, all that I can focus upon, all that I can possibly know is right now. And, I am here – Hineini!”
A few weeks ago I officiated at a wedding of an unusual couple. Unusual because before the wedding the bride was looking around the room noting everything that was right. The flowers were beautiful, the dress was stunning. Unusual because when she saw that the cake in the reception room was not hers, she immediately grabbed someone and said, “That is not my cake! There’s a poor bride missing her wedding cake.” Unusual because under the huppah it was clear to me that she was not thinking about the party or the formal photos, or who was getting along with one another, but instead she – and the groom – were listening to the words of our sacred liturgy. They were staring deeply into each other’s eyes, into each other’s souls. . . and they were totally present.
When a wedding couple, or a bar/bat mitzvah, or a grieving widow is able to focus and to shut out the chaos that might be swirling around them, the ceremony or service becomes much more than simple liturgy, it becomes holy.
There is a Zen story told of a monk who is sweeping the grounds of the Buddhist temple. Another monk walks by and proclaims: “Too busy!” The sweeping monk replies, “You should know there is one who is not too busy.” Yes, he may have looked busy on the outside, but he was experiencing stillness on the inside.
A Buddhist story. Yet, it should not be so foreign to us. Judaism teaches us to slow down and not be so busy. We have Shabbat -- a day of rest each week. We have a sabbatical for our fields once every seven years and even a jubilee every fifty years. And, like other traditions that teach the importance of the moment, we have even ritualized this practice. We began our service last night with Shehekiyanu: “We thank you God for bringing us to this time.” We voice the importance of now!
This morning/afternoon, I would like to suggest a few ways that we can all experience the now. Ways that we can let go of overwhelm. Ways that we can be present for ourselves, our loved ones, and for God.
The first is simple, yet for some the most challenging. Schedule a time to turn off technology. Commit to answering emails for a certain amount of time each morning, or two or even three times a day. Turn off cell phones. We survived quite well just a dozen years ago without these things. The internet and cell phones are wonderful tools. But if they are guiding our lives we are no longer living our lives. Recently I purchased a new smart phone so that I could combine my pda and cell phone and apparently I am the only person in history who has ever opted out of signing up for internet service. The salesperson thought I was crazy, but I insisted that I wanted vto be connected, not shackled.
Create patterns for children that do not rely on 24/7 programming. It seems logical that if we are training our kids with constant outside stimulation – the tv or a video is always on at home and in Rabbi Ted Riter p5 the car, we are shuffling between soccer and dance and play date and and and, they will never understand what it means to be fully present. They will constantly be craving one stimulus after another and will not be able to stop and just “be”.
Take on some sort of regular Shabbat practice. Like the Zen monk, we do not have to be “too busy” to do this. We can go to the soccer games on Shabbat – I’m not sure if this is permission or simply an acknowledgment. We can go to the soccer games and still find a place of non busyness, of rest, of Shabbat. Thousands of years ago the Greeks ridiculed the Jewish community for “wasting” one seventh of our life. But today I think we all realize the value of resting. Of not being so consumed with life. Of not being in overwhelm.
Learn to wait before responding to others. If someone else is speaking and we are already preparing a response or a question or even a consolation, we are not really listening to them. Instead, we are listening to our own voice and again, not being present.
Practice silence. Our moment of silence during a service at TAE is typically just a moment – a minute or less. I invite everyone to start with this silence and see what possibilities open up. If we can fully take on silence in various moments throughout our day, even in our conversations, we may hear sounds once unnoticed: A bird in a tree or our hearts in our chests. And when we can fully appreciate those moments, we can bring even more awareness and meaning to our words.
Practice meditation. In Judaism we have practices for meditations on a particular word or text. We have moving meditations and still meditations. We have meditations that aim at clearing the mind. Meditation has been a powerful yet quiet part of Judaism throughout our history that affords us a deeper connection with ourselves and with God, a feeling of wholeness and a sense of peace.
I get it. We live in an uncertain world. But today, on Rosh Hashanah, with so many of us here contemplating the opening of the gates and our inclusion in the Books of Life or Death, we have a choice. Are we going to let time be our master and live in a state of overwhelm? Are we going to let world events bring us to paralysis? Are we going to live our lives facing backward to what was or may have been? Are we always going to be clamoring for the better “whatever it may be” that is ahead? Or worse, fearful of the next step or what’s to come? Or, are we going to embrace the present?
I admit that it can be scary to change our focus. We are so often wrapped up in our identity of time. However, the possibilities that open up when we let go of these constraints allow us to see the sights we have never before seen, the sounds we have never before heard and the feelings we have never before felt. And, more importantly, it allows us to make the connections with ourselves, our loved ones and our God, so that when our name is called, we can with all integrity and awareness and presence answer “Hineini – Here I am!”
L’Shanah Tovah – May we all have a year of being fully present.
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