Each year, when I lead High Holiday services, I’m visited by a crisis of conscience. The crisis and I are old friends by now; it always comes to call sometime after the Torah reading and just before the Musaf (that long standing prayer at the end). The crisis is about one simple but profound question: Am I the right person to stand before God and represent all these other people praying with me?
In the space between the Torah reading and Musaf, Medieval Jews placed a prayer called the Hineni. The prayer is unusual because it is written in the first person singular. It begins, “Here I am, impoverished in (good) deeds.” Its overriding theme is deep humility, but its purpose is to help prayer leaders out of this particular spiritual crisis.
The prayer leader is called shaliach tzibbu__r in Hebrew, literally, “the community’s emissary.” The position exists because High Holiday services are a specialist’s job. Learning these prayers and melodies is a full year’s work; mastery takes many years longer. So, by dint of practice, investment, and knowledge, the shaliach tzibbur is the right person in the room to lead services.
But the knowledge of prayers is, in the final accounting, a technical concern; the deeper purpose of the leader is to speak for the community before the Most High — as the Hineni puts it, “the One who sits above the prayers of Israel.” As such, every year, I wonder whether I’m fit for the role: Am I the right person to pray on behalf of the woman mourning a miscarriage? Or the cancer survivor, or the relatives of the one who didn’t survive? Can I speak for the addict seeking redemption? Or the queer member mourning violence against the LGBTQ community? Can I be each person’s trusted messenger?
The Hineni’s anonymous author seems to know that this is the concern rattling around in my heart, for at the center of the prayer is a subtle yet powerful alteration to the Talmud’s description of the ideal shaliach tzibbur: a righteous, innocent, learned, humble person, whose family is in need — a person likely to evoke divine compassion. (Ta’anit 16a) The text of the Hineni, which quotes the talmudic passage, adds a single Hebrew letter, “kaf” — which means “as if” — and turns the Talmud’s ideal on its head: V’kabel tefilatik ‘tefilat zaken v’ragil…”_ “Accept my prayer as if it was the prayer [of a person of ideal character].” And that “as if,” helps my prayer be enough.
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We find the idea of Hineni early in the Torah, when Abraham argues with God that the towns of Sodom and Gemorrah should be saved on account of the righteous who may live there. In fact, the Hineni may get its name from Abraham’s predilection for the word. He responds to God and says, “Hineh-na,” (which translates as, ‘Here, please”). Abraham says, “Here, please. I venture to speak to my Master, and I am but dust and ashes.” (Genesis 18:27) Abraham both demands justice and acknowledges that, as a mortal (“dust and ashes”), he lacks God’s perspective and cannot know what is perfectly just. Abraham, the first Jew, was distinguished by both his great moral vision and his humble heart.
We, too, are like Abraham in this way — flawed and yet still reaching for God. The Hineni offers us the balm of humility. It acknowledges that though we strive to be of service, we are limited. The Hineni also removes the focus of prayer from the prayer leader’s character, and places it instead upon the needs of those who sent us to serve. Humility allows us to transcend the boundaries of self and to become shlichim, messengers for others, and thereby of use to all those reaching out from their hearts.
Rabbi Scott Perlo serves the congregation at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C., a unique institution that reaches out to Jewish and “Jewish adjacent” young professionals of all denominations and backgrounds.