Hineni is found in the Hebrew Scriptures and means “here I am.” It occurs 17 times in four canonical books of Hebrew scripture (Genesis, Exodus, Samuel and Isaiah).
On spelling alone, the word would seem to appear 178 times. Once vowels are applied, however, it easy to confusehineniwith the ubiquitous hi’nih’ni, which means “I am here.”
These two words apparently mean the same thing, but they do not.
Limiting our discussion to occurrences in the Five Books of Moses, hineni, “here I am,” is a response to the call of G-d (e.g., Genesis 22:1, 46:2, Exodus 3:4). It is a response to the call of an angel (Genesis 22:11, 31:11) presumed to be G-d’s proxy.
Hineni is a parent’s response to the call of their child (Genesis 22:7, 27:18) and it is a child’s response to the call of their parent (Genesis 27:1, 37:13).
Hineni accomplishes two things: the caller has the full attention of the protagonist whose story will change in a dramatic way. The reader must wait to find out what the protagonist will be asked to do.
The Torah’s use of hineni creates soap opera moments: “Joseph, what’s wrong with you? Your dad calls upon you to visit the brothers who hate you? By saying ‘hineni’ without hesitation, don’t you realize the great danger you’ve put yourself in?”
Although we think of hineni primarily as a response to a divine call, this usage is limited to three occurrences. Two of them are related to the disturbing story of Isaac’s near sacrifice by a father who hears voices.
I once saw in a local religious bookstore, “Why is it that when I talk to God it is called praying, but when God talks to me it is called schizophrenia?”
Now consider the meaning of hi’nih’ni. Wherever hi’nih’ni is used it is followed by a verb. In English it would be,” I am here and intend to perform the following action.”
Hineni is different. It says, “I am here to listen to whatever the caller has to say, but (with the exception of Joseph) I do not yet know what the caller wants from me.”
With Danny Siegel, a Torah teacher par excellence whom I respect and admire for his close and creative reading of holy texts (visit dannysiegel.com to learn more about him and his amazing work.), I explored the difference between hineni and hi’nih’ni.
Hi’nih’ni says, “I am here.” As a Jew, I am here, for example, to do the mitzvah of tzedakah (charity), a tool which leads to tikkun olam, repairing and improving the world.
Hi’nih’ni, “I am here,” limits my actions to specific activities codified in writing, activities taught to all followers of the Torah and passed down through the generations.
Mitzvot (commandments) like tzedakah are not hard to do. Mitzvot can transform the world and those who do them, sometimes when acting as individuals and sometimes when acting in concert with other mitzvah-doers.
But saying hineni, “here I am,” is not a mitzvah. It is a dramatic one-on-one experience without interpretive oversight or safeguards.
What if the heavenly voice asks us, like Abraham, to murder a child? Even worse, what if we succeed?
In Deuteronomy 30:11-14, we learn that the Torah is not heaven. G-d placed it on earth. The Torah cannot be countermanded by a heavenly voice seeking lone actors.
Rabbi Simcha Prombaum serves Congregation Sons of Abraham in La Crosse.