More than what he was saying, it was his face that caught my attention. Flicking on the television absent-mindedly as I was getting dressed for a wedding, I came across the middle of a program with a story from the Second Lebanon War.
A young man was sharing what must have been an extremely difficult experience: the house his unit had taken refuge in was hit by a Hezbollah anti-tank missile, a number of his comrades had been killed and wounded, and he himself wasn’t sure he would make it. But what made me stop and listen was his face.
He had lost comrades, yet there was no pain in his eyes, no tragic sadness in his voice. If anything, his eyes were animated; alive; and his voice was full of hope and promise. He spoke of his plans for the future and how lucky he was to have made it through, how he had been given a new lease on life and now was determined to make it a life worth living. I was taken by how “at peace” he seemed.
The interviewer asked the veteran, “If you had the chance to do it over again, would you have made the same choices, would you have gone to fight?” He responded in the affirmative.
At which point the cameraman panned back to reveal that the speaker was sitting in a wheelchair and had with no legs. His battle injuries had resulted in a double amputation, from the knee down.
I was taken by the cameraman’s decision to focus for so long on this young man’s face. If I had seen the whole picture I probably would have been focused on the legs that weren’t there, instead of the person that was. But on a deeper level, I was struck by how a person who had been through so much could remain so positive.
“You would do this again?” the interviewer asked, “even if you knew you would suffer the same injuries?” His face took on a surprised look. “I had the privilege of serving as a Jewish soldier, in a Jewish army, defending the Jewish people in a Jewish state,” he said. “After 2,000 years of dreaming, I had this privilege. Of course I would do it again!”
Every year, on Rosh Hashanah we read two different stories: of the expulsion of Yishmael, Avraham’s first son with his handmaiden Hagar, and of the binding of Yitzchak. Both are stories of the sons of Abraham, and both involved Avraham’s ability to be willing to sacrifice, or let go of, a son.
In the story of Yishmael, Avraham sends his son away, whereas in the story of Yitzchak, they come together.
From a Jewish perspective, Yishmael seems to be a failure, departing from Jewish tradition and establishing the Arab nation. Yitzchak, on the other hand, is one of our forefathers, the progenitor of the Jewish people. Why do these two vastly disparate stories comprise the Torah readings in our Rosh Hashanah service, and what common theme is the message of their connection?
The story of Yishmael is all about the here and now. Abraham, against his natural instincts of loving-kindness, is forced by G-d to listen to his wife Sarah and send Yishmael and his mother Hagar away. The Torah tells us that this is because Yishmael is me’tzachek (literally, laughing at — or with — Yitzchak). And while the midrashim and commentators differ as to the exact meaning of this phrase, varying from lewd behavior to taunting, one thing is clear: Yitzchak, which literally means “he will laugh,” is juxtaposed with Yishmael, the me’tzachek, or one who laughs now. Yitzchak’s life is about the future, while Yishmael is all about the here and now.
When Yishmael is cast beneath the bushes dying of thirst and calling out for water, G-d hears him “ba’asher hu’ sham,” where he is.
The midrash, noting this unique phrase, has the angels in an uproar over G-d’s decision to save Yishmael. After all, they say, the descendants of this lad will one day slaughter G-d’s (Jewish) children, so how can G-d spare him now?
G-d’s response? I hear his honest remorse and pain now, and if now he is repentant then he should be saved, whatever might come later on.
The story of Yishmael, then, is all about the here and now. And the message is that whatever mistakes we may have made in the past, this moment is the beginning of the rest of our lives, and changing the now changes everything. Certainly a fitting message for Rosh Hashanah.
And what of Yitzchak and the binding of Yitzchak? Yitzchak is all about the future.
Indeed, when G-d first “approaches: Avraham, the Torah tells us: “And it was after these things that G-d tested Avraham. And he said to him Avraham, and Avraham said: ‘Here I am’.” (Bereishit 22)
The word hineni, Here I am, is a very significant word that means a lot more than a response to “knock knock.” This same word, used sparingly, is Moshe’s response to G-d’s calling at the Burning Bush, as well as Yaakov’s response to Yitzchak’s calling for a blessing. Whenever this word is used in the Torah, it is indicative of an individual responding to a calling. Hineni means I am here, ready to serve, it is a moment of pure potential, wherein a person rises to the challenge of becoming all they could ever be.
And it is in this moment of ‘hineni’ that Avraham says to G-d: ‘I exist because You created me; because You love me; whatever You ask of me, I live to do.’ And in truth, this is the essential kernel of what life is all about. If Hashem (G-d) created me, then I must have a purpose, and if Hashem loves me enough to have decided the world is better off with me still in it for at least another day, then all I want is to know is what Hashem wants of me. How can my being here, today, make the world better?
Indeed, it is within the context of hineni that we respond to life’s greatest challenges.
When Israeli reserve soldiers stop what they are doing and answer a call to battle, however painful and challenging that may be, they are essentially saying “here I am.” When we stop what we are doing, because the opportunity for a mitzvah, whether it be helping refugees from an earthquake in Japan, or rebuilding homes for the poor in Haiti, we are essentially saying: “hineni.”
The Israeli reservist understands that his country needs him. He recognizes that he is needed, and he essentially says ‘here I am’. And this is true whenever we say Hineni. We see refugees from Sudan being beaten to death by Egyptians at the border and we stop what we are doing and say hineni. In the binding of Isaac, Avraham’s “hineni” aspires to a whole new level. Avraham says hineni without even having an inkling of what is coming.
Avraham is responding to G-d before G-d has even told him what he wants. It is enough for Avraham to know he is called, for him to immediately respond ‘Hineni’. This Hineni is all about the future: whatever you ask of me, whatever today and tomorrow bring: ‘Hineni’.
And this, incidentally, sets the theme of the story of the binding of Isaac. Where the story of Yishamael was all about the here and now, the story of Yitzchak is all about what lies ahead. Indeed, where Yishmael is the ‘metzachek’ the one who laughs now, Yitzchak literally means ‘he will laugh’ in the future. Yishamel is about being in the present, in the given moment, and Yitzchak is about seeing and being ready to accept and to live up to the moment that is yet to come.
This is one of the most essential ingredients of a loving relationship.
Imagine your daughter calls you up from school and you can hear the quiver in her voice; sense the tears that are on the verge of bursting forth, and you instantly know hineni: here I am; whatever she needs. Or when your wife calls down from upstairs; the ability to be in that hineni mode is all about how much trust and love already exists in that moment. If my wife asks something of me, then it must be important, even before I know what it is. And this is the essence of our relationship with Hashem.
Being in the moment of Yishmael and the readiness to serve in the future of Yitzchak, are what Rosh Hashana is all about.
We have the chance to start over and learn to balance our ability to live in the present and be in the moment, while at the same time open to whatever life’s next moment has to bring.
As we begin the New Year, may we all be blessed to appreciate the beauty inherent in every moment, alongside the challenges, and may we be blessed as well with the strength to change the future, so that the world as it is, becomes the world as it could be.
Wishing you all a sweet, happy, and healthy New Year.
This column originally appeared in 2011.