A couple of years ago, an article came out in the Wall Street Journal titled: When is it OK to Check a Smartphone at the Dinner Table? It proposes to lay out the rules that should govern how we use our phones at the table. Rule #1 is that it is never appropriate to check your phone at the table. It then comes up with 20 situations when it would be acceptable, and even what you are permitted to do on your phone in each.
For example: if the table is having a conversation, and needs a piece of information that could be found quickly using a phone, one person can pull out their phone to check. That same person is then allowed to check email and Facebook and Twitter for 2 mintes (because no one has the self-control to do only ONE thing on their phone). Or: if you are sitting at the table, and you catch someone else checking their phone, you can check yours for 1 minute – fair is fair. Or my personal favorite: no one is permitted to bring their phones with them to the bathroom, and if they do, then everyone else at the table is permitted to use their phones while that first person is gone.
Why did the WSJ take the time to print this article? Why did they think that we would need 21 different rules to govern our use of phones at the dinner table? Even if these rules are helpful, why would anyone be interested in reading them? The answer is obvious. We all know that smartphones – and the social media that they give us access to – give us the ability to connect with people halfway around the world. And we also know that they erect a barrier between us and the other people in the room. When you look at your phone, you are not looking at the person across the table from you. When you read an article or a post online, you aren’t listening to the story that they are sharing. When you check in to a new location, you aren’t checked in with the people next to you on the couch.
And so, we develop rules. If it isn’t the 21 rules of the Wall Street Journal, it’s the simple one that I have heard over and over again: the first one to check their phones at a restaurant pay for dinner. And then we have the Jewish approach: From sunset on Friday until the stars come out on Saturday, ever single week, smartphones are off limits. For 25 hours each week, we are cut off from the rest of the world. There is no Facebook, no shopping on Amazon, not texting or Facetime or Snapchat. The only people that we can interact with are in front of us. The only texts that we read are printed on a piece of paper (or parchment) with real ink. What better way to be present with the important people in our lives than to be physically in their presence with no distractions in our hands? If Shabbat and holiday observance is not already a part of your life, I believe that the easiest way to experience the connection and presence that Shabbat has to offer is to put away smartphones and tablets. Cut the wireless cord to the outside world, and strengthen your ties with the people around you.
And yet, in spite of everything that I have just said, everyone in this rooms knows that just because a person is not distracted by a phone in his or her hands does not mean that the person is truly present. We have all been in meetings and classrooms where someone consistently speaks up in order to have spoken and to have been heard speaking. A lecture when someone in the audience does not so much ask a question as announce the fact that they know about this subject, too, and “what do you think about that?” I can’t count the number of times I have been in that situation myself and felt the need to “contribute,” to say something, so that it is clear that I am present and paying attention, even if I am not adding much to the conversation.
This is a different kind of presence than the type I was speaking about earlier. Instead of being present with the other person – instead of telling them “I’m here for your” – this is announcing your own presence: “look at me, look at me, I’m here, too!”
In Hebrew, the same word is used to describe both of these types of being present: הנני. הנני appears 178 times in the Bible. Most of the time, it is spoken by God, or on behalf of God by one of the prophets. In those cases, it is generally used in the second way: God is declaring something that God is about to do. Three of the plagues in Egypt are presented this way: the wild animals, the hail, and the locusts. Often in these contexts it is translated as “Behold!”
הנני is used this way in the haftarah that we read this morning. This Haftarah is an extended promise that God will not forget us, and will eventually return us to our land. This prophecy of Jeremiah’s was written after the Kingdom of Israel was destroyed and the people sent into exile to the north. God promises to return the exiles with the introductory word הנני. In older translations of the Bible, the verse was translated as: “Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the uttermost parts of the earth…” God is drawing our attention to God’s actions, demanding that we pay attention to God.
But there is a second way that הנני is used. In our Torah reading this morning, God calls out to Abraham, and Abraham responds: הנני “Here I am.” Abraham is present before God, ready for whatever request or demand that God might make. We all know what it is that God demands of Abraham here. And yet, Abraham doesn’t change; at the end of our portion this morning, when the angel calls out to him to stop him from sacrificing Isaac, Abraham responds in exactly the same way: הנני. Abraham brought his whole being, his full attention, into his relationship with God. For better or for worse, Abraham saw his needs and desires as less important than the burden that God placed upon him.
This type of presence, the idea of being there for someone else’s needs, is also the way that הנני appears in the liturgy on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In just a few minutes, Avinoam will recite the הנני prayer. This prayer has specific and unusual choreography attached to it. In synagogues around the world the sh’lichei tzibbur, the prayer leaders walk through the community as they recite these words. It is a moment that can easily become showmanship and display. In those cases, the הנני can fairly be interpreted as “Behold! I am here, look at me!” But that distorts the words and the meaning of the prayer.
The הנני that Avinoam will recite is a blunt acknowledgement of how far from perfect each of us is. It is a plea that in spite of our own failings, that our prayers be accepted, not only on our own behalf, but on behalf of the entire community. The words of the prayer recognize the enormity of the responsibility to pray on behalf of an entire community, and the fact that no individual could measure up. But in spite of that: הנני. Avionoam is present, he is here, to do the best that is possible, and help us all to be present in this moment as well.
All of this – both of the ways that הנני is used – fits with the themes of the Holidays. We come before God as a supplicant, hoping that God will hear our pleas, but accepting that God will do what God will do. We are powerless, but forever optimistic. הנני, were are here, we are present, we are ready.
God, on the other hand, is the powerful ruler, with the puffed out chest, declaring “הנני! Behold! I will judge all of humanity based on their actions, and determine their fate for the future.”
This fits well with the Avinu Malkeinu – God is our ruler, our sovereign, our king.
This image is complicated by the third appearance of Hineni in the Torah reading. When Isaac turns to his father, in order to ask him where the lamb is that will be sacrificed, Abraham responds to his son: Hineni. He does not draw away from Isaac, even though he knows what Isaac will ask and that he has no good answer. He is present with him, ready to listen to his questions, and try to calm his fears. He is present with Isaac and for Isaac in the same way that he is present with and for God.
That is an amazing ability. Abraham is able to be present, and respect the needs of another human being in exactly the same way that he is present for God. What would our lives look like if we were able to emulate this moment in Abraham’s life?
Abraham is portrayed as a man of faith. He is portrayed as the perfect host. But here we see that his respect for others does not only include those who are his superiors it also includes his son. What would our lives look like if we were truly present for everyone who comes in front of us?
The final appearance of הנני will come on Yom Kippur morning, and it will shatter the divide that we have set up between God’s declarations of Hineni and human declarations. We will read in the Haftarah that morning: “Then, when you call, Adonai will answer; when you cry, God will say: Hineni – Here I am.” When we let the oppressed go free, when we share our bread with the hungry, when we clothe the naked, it not only counts to our credit in the celestial ledgers, but it causes God to be present in our lives. And that presence of God is not in the bold, puffed out chest, manner that God sent the plagues to Egypt, but rather in the humble, loving way that Abraham was present for his son Isaac.
The Gemara questions what it would take to have God respond to us with הנני. It presents a baraita – an early rabbinic teaching – which suggests several actions that would lead God to answer us this way. Among others, they include loving your neighbor, having good relations with family, and helping one’s neighbors when they are in need. What stands out about this, is the fact that all of these actions deal with our relationships with other people, not God. When we are able to be present for others, God will be present for us.
We are all faced with a choice every day. We can choose whether or not to be present for our families, our friends, and our community. But being in the same physical space is not enough. As we all know, being in the same room with someone might not mean much, if we are each glued to our phones and apps that connect us to people halfway around the world – but cut us off from the people right in front of us.
But our tradition teaches us that through our humility, our presence, and our good deeds, we are able to build real relationships not only with the people around us, but even with God. And all it takes to start ourselves down this path is the simple declaration: Hineni – Here I Am.