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Leonard Cohen’s Hineni

Just in time for the Days of Awe 5777 (2016), two important, popular North American Jewish artists grapple with that high holiday phrase hineni - an ambiguous, multivalenced concept usually translated as, “Here I am.”
Rabbi Philip Graubart is a former Vice President, West Coast at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He received rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, a BA in creative writing from Northwestern University, and an MA in Jewish literature from the University of Judaism. He has written for the Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, and San Diego Union Tribune and has published five books including a murder-mystery, Silwan (2016).

Originally posted on Times of Israel


"Hineni," Leonard Cohen croaks/whispers, accompanied by an electronic beat and his boyhood synagogue’s all men’s choir. And then he then he mumbles, over and over “I am ready.” But ready for what?

When I first heard the song – yesterday; I’m binge listening to it today – I thought of a retreat I recently attended. The facilitator started things off brilliantly by asking us to trace our hands, creating an open palm. “What do you have to give the others?” she asked. “What do you offer?” Really she was asking us to define our hineni, our “Here I am,” our readiness. I looked around the room and noticed that I was among the oldest in the group. The sight astonished me, though it’s becoming a more common occurrence in my life. What did I have to offer these mostly young, incredibly bright successful people? What was my readiness to them, my hineni?

Just in time for the Days of Awe 5777 (2016), two important, popular North American Jewish artists grapple with that high holiday phrase hineni – an ambiguous, multivalenced concept usually translated as, “Here I am.” Jonathan Safran Foer wrote a novel with that very name, Here I Am, and just this week Leonard Cohen, the eighty-two-year-old Canadian rocker/folk-singer/poet released a song called “You Want it Darker,” where a Montreal men’s choir chants the word hineni during the chorus, followed by Cohen’s gruff, whispered, mumbling “I am ready.”

In the liturgy hineni means something like “ready,” or committed, awake, resolute in our promise to make better lives for ourselves in the coming year. But during the Rosh Hashana Torah reading there’s also a darker tinge to the word – it’s Abraham’s response to God’s call on him to sacrifice his child. Hineni, Abraham replies, meaning I’m ready for…the darker impulses that compel me, the most excruciating moments of my intimate relationships, my most impossible choices, saying goodbye when I’m not ready, watching loved ones die, dying. It’s that hineni both artists examine – the readiness of mortality, frailty, of “who shall die” of “who by fire,” of “do not abandon me as I grow old,” and not the cheery “here I am” of our naively optimistic new year’s resolutions.

In Cohen’s song, he expresses surprise that God wants it darker, that the human soul contained such potential for wickedness, that the trajectory of life is not towards enlightenment and re-birth, but towards ageing and illness. “I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim,” he proclaims. At first, Cohen isn’t ready. “If you’re the dealer,” he sings to God, “I want out of the game.” But then, over and over again, to the haunting accompaniment of a mournful chazan, he comes to hineni – “I’m ready.”

Cohen just celebrated his eighty second birthday, so it’s not surprising that the encroaching darkness is on his mind – though, to be fair, he’s been tackling the subject of evil and frailty since the beginning of his career.

Jonathan Safran Foer, though, is not yet 40, but his hineni is just as dark, and in many ways sadder, more painful, because he contemplates it with such brutal honesty at such a relatively young age. The novel’s subject is divorce, the slow disintegration of a family. In the book, the phrase “here I am” mostly refers to radical commitment – being in relationship to someone you love. But never in the romantic sense, always by probing the agonizing difficulty of crossing the often booby-trapped space to the other, of creating a lasting readiness.

“In sickness and in sickness” the main character mother toasts the couple at their wedding, reminding them that illness challenges relationships – and sometimes defines them – much more than health. Safran Foer symbolizes hineni’s shadows with recurring scenes of an aging and ultimately dying pet dog. (Slight spoiler alert) Jacob, the main character, holds the beloved pet down while the veterinarian administers the euthanizing poison.

“Are you ready,” the vet asks, and Safran Foer ends his novel with the same words Leonard Cohen uses to define hineni: “I am ready.”

When it comes to pets, I’m not the most sentimental guy, but I cried my eyes out during that scene. Because it’s not just about a dying dog. It’s the struggle to say hineni to loss, to the inevitable end of things, to marriages that break, love that dies. That’s a feeling captured by Abraham’s hineni especially during Rosh  Hashana, which, at points in our lives, hits us with so much mortality and loss we can barely taste the apples and honey.

At the retreat, when I stared at the pre-school quality open palm I’d just traced and wondered what I had to offer, the word hineni did pop into my head. The confident “here I am” iteration, but also with a dash of Abraham, of Leonard Cohen. I offer my losses, I thought, death of parents, a broken family, illness – perhaps a bit more sorrow than many in the room, just because I had the benefit of a few more years. I am ready for it, I thought, and it’s what I offer. It’s something.

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