Because the Torah is not just concerned with ritual and spiritual practice, we also have rules about civic and communal life, our sacred text offers us rules of war.
One you may have heard of is the prohibition against cutting down fruit trees when besieging a city—a prohibition in Deuteronomy that both lays a textual foundation for environmental ethics and sustainability, but it is also one that we see continually violated today. But another exchange between leaders and soldiers is described in Deuteronomy 20:1-9 just prior to the rule about trees.
When you take the field against your enemies, and see horses and chariots—forces larger than yours—have no fear of them, for Adonai your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, is with you. Before you join battle, the priest shall come forward and address the troops. He shall say to them, “Hear, O Israel! You are about to join battle with your enemy. Let not your courage falter. Do not be in fear, or in panic, or in dread of them. For it is Adonai your God who marches with you to do battle for you against your enemy, to bring you victory.”
The priests then address the troops with a series of questions. The text reads:
Then the officials shall address the troops, as follows: “Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it. Is there anyone who has planted a vineyard but has never harvested it? Let them go back to their home, lest they die in battle and another harvest it. Is there anyone who has paid the bride-price for a wife, but who has not yet married her? Let them go back to their home, lest they die in battle and another marry her.” The officials shall go on addressing the troops and say, “Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his.” When the officials have finished addressing the troops, army commanders shall assume command.”
One could imagine the scene—it almost reads like one of those movies where the commander gives a rousing speech before the big battle. In this case, the priest asks questions—has someone built a new house? Has someone planted a vineyard? Is someone engaged to be married? And finally—is any one afraid? Is anyone afraid.
The first two questions are practical ones—someone who has built a house and planted a vineyard should have the opportunity to live in the house and enjoy the bounty before going off to war. And one who is engaged but not yet married should have the opportunity to spend time with one’s partner before heading into battle.
But this last one, while it could also be understood as practical in a sense as the text says as one’s fear may impact others, reveals a deeper truth about Torah—the Torah is concerned with our mental well-being. The Torah is concerned with our mental well-being. Being afraid in a situation is enough to warrant removing oneself from that situation. How you are in the moment matters. Your mental health matters. Your state of mind matters.
I think it is safe to say that really none of us is in a good state of mind these days. We have all been dealing with illness and loss. And not just loss of life, loss of livelihood, jobs, social connections, habits, hobbies, routines, pleasures.
We are dealing with fear—a virus is sweeping our country, we are told the way to be safe it to keep our distance, to be suspect of everyone, don’t touch, be vigilant. An invisible enemy that has killed hundreds of thousands, sickened many more. We live each day wondering if this is the one when I got exposed, is that stuffy nose allergies or the virus, will we be a breakthrough case?
We are dealing with anger—because we were supposed to be done with this by now. Last year we prayed for a vaccine to deliver us from the fear, our prayers were answered, only to have many people refuse to get it. Variants are spreading and those who have chosen to get the vaccine are angry with those who chose not to and those who chose not to are angry with those who are seeking mandates and it goes on and one.
And we are exhausted. It has been a long year and a half of living with the virus. I will admit, I was a bit disheartened going into the High Holidays this year, I struggled with motivation. Last year, when we knew we would need to be separate and do things differently it was a challenge but there was also an element of fun and creativity. It was new—so we made videos, moved Yizkor to the cemetery and Neilah to the parking lot, we blew shofar from a boat in Budd Inlet. And then we could not imagine that we would be back here again, that is was an anomaly, and we would be back to normal in a year’s time. But it was not to be so.
And this year it felt like there were even more factors to juggle—do we meet indoors but limit attendance? How do we choose who gets to come in and who must stay out? Do we limit to the vaccinated only? And if we do are we ok excluding children and families? Do we hold multiple services? There is no good answer, everything will make someone unhappy, and that fact alone makes this such a difficult year.
Fear, anger and exhaustion. We thought we knew how this would end. Now I have no idea how it will end.
“Is there anyone afraid and disheartened? Let them go back to his home” say the priests in the Torah. We all want to go back to how things were.
The Talmud teaches in its commentary that those litany of questions that are asked prior to battle are grouped in such a way so as to protect those who are fearful and fainthearted. The idea being, the rabbis teach, that because the question of the new house, new vineyard, new marriage, and being fearful are asked together, then the one who leaves out of fear is protected from having their fear known—when they leave, one might assume that they are leaving because they have a new house or a new marriage—therefore they don’t have the shame, the Talmud understands, of admitting their fear.
It’s a beautiful sentiment of concern—much like how in our Yom Kippur liturgy we all recite the ashamu and al cheyt, the two litanies of sins, all together in the plural. By doing so we affirm that collectively everyone has done everything, and by all reciting we give “cover” to what we have actually done, so as to protect from any embarrassment and shame—or at least having to answer and share when one does not want to.
And yet, at the same time, we shouldn’t have to hide our emotions behind a false cover—a forced smile, a pat answer. We are not OK. And it is OK to not be OK. And it is OK to let someone know that you are not OK. If we can not be real with each other, then we are unable to access what it is we truly need right now—what will allow us to transcend and work though this challenging time and these challenging emotions—genuine human interaction and trust.
Time and time again in our Torah we hear the words hineyni—“Here I am”—a response to a call. God calls Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac—a trial, a test—and Abraham responds hineyni. Jacob calls to Joseph to go out to see his brothers, a journey that will set in motion a chain of events that leads first to power then to slavery, the story of a people, and Joseph says hineyni. God calls to Jacob in a dream to bless him and confirm that he is the inheritor of the covenant and would be the head of a new family and people, and that he should not be wary of going down to Egypt, and Jacob responds hineyni. God calls to Moses at the burning bush, revealing his true identity and charging him with starting a movement and liberating liberation of his people, and Moses replies hineyni.
Hineyni—“Here I am”—it is a word that, our rabbis teach us, is a word of anavah, humility, and zerizut, eagerness. It is a word that means I am ready for what is next, spoken by those who present themselves for a grand mission. It is a word that we can echo as we stand here on this day to say hineyni, I am ready for what the year brings, for the work of teshuvah I am required to do, for the acts of tikkun olam, repair of the world, that I must commit to.
But that is not the only hineyni that is expected of us now, that is needed from us now. What we need is not the hineyni that responds to a higher power, the hineyni of Here I am! I’m ready, willing and able! What is my mission? What is my calling?
What we need now, what we truly need right now, is the hineyni that is not the response to a higher power, but is a response to each other, a response to a call for help. The hineyni that says not “Here I am,” but “I’m here” I’m here for you. I’m here for you in your suffering. I’m here for you in your fear, anger, and exhaustion. I’m here.
This fall I’ve decided to do a unit of CPE—Clinical Pastoral Education—at Providence St. Peter Hospital. What this means is I will essentially be a chaplaincy intern for the next several months, having regular hours at the hospital, as well as learning more about pastoral work with a cohort of other learners.
CPE is often done by seminarians during their schooling or clergy early in their career, or folks looking to make a career shift into full time chaplaincy. None of those describe my interest. I am doing it to learn and grow in my role as a rabbi, and I have wanted to do it for a long time. Because of certain things falling into place, now is a good time.
But the other thing that motivated me to do this now is the pandemic. We are hearing about how hospitals are full and stretched thin because of the pandemic. If I can play a part to help alleviate the stress and the strain, if just from an emotional and spiritual sense, it is something I am feeling called to do. Because COVID is putting a strain on healthcare not just because of the virus itself, but because everything else—the “normal” illnesses and causes for hospitalization—also are happening at the same time. The system is stressed.
As you may know, Yohanna was in the hospital early this summer for a bacterial infection unrelated to covid that caused fluid build up around her lungs. She required surgery and chest tubes to remove the fluid while she was fighting an infection caused by an unknown bacteria. And one of the hardest parts of this ordeal is that because of COVID, visitation was restricted, and I could not be with her in the hospital. She was all alone. Every single patient in that hospital was alone.
And it is only when visitation is restricted that you realize how important—how crucial—it is to have family and friends and visitors in the hospital. One for the emotional support, having someone by your side during a difficult time lifts us up and aids our healing. We need to be near people who love and care for us when we are going through something difficult like illness. And on a more practical level perhaps, having other people nearby provides the support for communicating with health care providers, someone else to absorb information, ask questions, and convey concerns and sometimes to inform the rotating providers with information about the patient—which can sometimes be impossible for a patient to do themselves.
I had this realization this summer while going through this: It is astounding to think that aside from all those who died from COVID, how many more died because they did not have adequate access to health care in a stressed system and especially because they did not have that practical and emotional support, that companionship, that is so necessary for our healing. COVID, we must remember, impacts more than those who are sick with that particular virus.
Because of COVID’s impact this summer, we are being denied that desperately needed opportunity to say hineyni, I’m here for you. I am present, I am by your side. And it is something that when it is denied do we realize how much we need it.
The importance of showing up for one another during a time of suffering can not be overstated. We need others to lift ourselves up and hold us during difficult times. There is a beautiful story in the Talmud about this:
Rabbi Yoḥanan’s student, Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba, fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan entered to visit him, and said to him: Do you desire to be ill and afflicted? Rabbi Ḥiyya said to him: no, I neither welcome this suffering or any reward that might come from it. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yoḥanan stood him up and restored him to health. Similarly, Rabbi Yoḥanan fell ill. Rabbi Ḥanina entered to visit him, and said to him: do you accept this suffering and illness? Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him, no I do not. Rabbi Ḥanina said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Ḥanina stood him up and restored him to health. The Gemara asks: Why did Rabbi Yoḥanan wait for Rabbi Ḥanina to restore him to health? If he was able to restore his student, why couldn’t he just heal himself. The Gemara answers, they say: A prisoner cannot generally free themselves from prison, but relies on others to release them.Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 5b
We do not need to have the experience of the hospital to benefit from this idea. We are all care givers and care receivers. And just because we have been care givers doesn’t mean we can take care of ourselves. Indeed, the Talmud says the opposite. We can not take care of ourselves, we need others to care for us. Rabbi Yohanan in the story was there to say hineyni to his student Rabbi Hiyya and thus aid in his healing. But when Rabbi Yohanan was ill, he needed another to come and say hineyni for him.
At this time of fear, and anger, and exhaustion—we need each other more than ever to show up and say hineyni for one another. So we can free each other from this prison.
I don’t feel I can stand here tonight and tell you not to fear, or not to feel angry, or not feel exhausted, or what Judaism says about fear and anger and exhaustion and how to engage with these emotions. I don’t think I can say that.
Indeed, I would say that fear is good, because it allows us to be safe, to protect ourselves and each other, and to take risks and do hard things. Anger is good, because when it is well placed it motivates us towards positive change, to identify problems and energetically work toward solutions. Exhaustion is good, because it reminds us of our need to rest, and with rest comes perspective and the ability to see things in new ways, and self care, and the renewal to keep going.
So I don’t want to tell you to not feel fear, or anger, or exhaustion. I can’t, we can not automatically take it away, it is where we are right now. But what we can do—like the Torah instructs in that passage about war—what we can do is share it. We can express it, and to those who express it we can accept it, and affirm it, and support each other through this challenging time that we are all going through. We can live into compassion for ourselves for our struggles, and compassion for others because our struggles are mutual. We can show up for one another.
So I invite you to think, one, have you taken it easy on yourself, taking the time you need? And, two, have you shown up for another? And as we begin again to ask, how can I show up for others this year? The text, the phone call, the zoom gathering—they are needed more than ever. Are you prepared to turn to another and say hineyni, I’m here?
It’s not easy. This showing up for each other requires trust, and one of the ironies of this time is that we are in a place as a society where we trust each other less. We trusted everyone to get the vaccine to bring us out of this pandemic, and yet it hasn’t happened. On the national level we are seeing differences beyond policy, but a deeper distrust in the other side’s loyalties and interests.
It is also interesting that so much of the arguments around vaccination and “freedom” are rooted in lack of trust. I want to make choices because I don’t trust the CDC. Or I don’t trust the government. Or I don’t trust the news media. I don’t trust the pharmaceutical companies.
But it is only through trust—which in Hebrew is bitachon—that we will be able to make it through this together. And trust is built on compassion. Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda in his 11th century text, Duties of the Heart, teaches, “When someone knows that their friend has compassion and empathy for them, they will trust in them and be at peace with regard to troubling them with all of their matters.”
Trusting in ourselves and others to be there for us, to support us, to love us—this is how we build relationships, and this is how we make it through. This is how we are able to live with the fear and anger and exhaustion and whatever else we are feeling at this time. This is how we make a better future. Trust is reciprocal, so if we offer it, hopefully we will receive it back. So we must say hineyni and we build that trust.
In the story we read last week at Rosh Hashanah, which I alluded to earlier, God calls Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac and Abraham answers hineyni, Here I am, I’m ready. He also answers hineyni when the angel calls out from heaven to stop him from doing it. But those are not the “hineyni”s we need right now.
Also in the story, as Abraham and Isaac are walking up the mountain, Isaac notices that they have the wood, the knife and the fire, all of the necessary elements for a sacrificial offering, except for the sacrifice itself. You can imagine what Isaac was thinking at that moment. So he turns to ask his father why, so he calls out to him and says, “father,” and Abraham again answers, “hineyni.”
This is the hineyni we need right now. The hineyni that is not an answer to an outside power, but the hineyni that is an answer to one closest to our heart. The hineyni that says, I know you are scared, I know you are anxious, I know you don’t know what is happening, but I see you, and I am with you. The hineyni that says “I’m here,” not “Here I am.”
As Rachel Naomi Remen writes, “Understanding the suffering is beyond me. Understanding the healing is, too. But in this moment, I am here. Use me.” In this moment, hineyni.
I say this to you, as your rabbi. Hineyni, I’m here. And let us turn to those we love, those we know, and even those we don’t know and say hineyni, I’m here.
And tomorrow, when we read the words of the prophet Isaiah, we read how—if we care for one another, if we heed the call of those in need, if we answer hineyni to each other—then God will answer hineyni—“I’m here”—to us.
It is OK to have fear, anger and exhaustion. We all feel it. I feel it. And I don’t think it will be going away anytime soon. But if we show up for each other, then I do know that we will make it through. In this moment you may not know what it is like to feel strong, to feel hopeful, to feel calm, to feel at peace. But what you can know is what it feels like to not be alone. Because, you are not alone. You are not alone.
And at the heart of it all, that is what matters most. Hineyni. I am here for you. Hineynu. We are here. Together. And with that, we can move forward.