I usually begin each of the holy days with an invitation to the congregation to travel through the prayer service in any way that enables them to make it a meaningful experience - to not feel obligated to read along with everything that I am doing; to choose readings to sit with longer, to close their eyes and meditate, to go for a walk and return. Even though my soloists and I have woven together liturgy and music with intention and the hope of creating a vessel for meaningful prayer, I have to create something that I believe will touch upon things that many different kinds of people appreciate and, therefore, is likely to lack something for everyone too. And so we all have to be responsible for our own prayer experience, and for our own shortcomings and sins.
Until now I have struggled with what to do with the Hineni prayer. Perhaps my feelings about it have been colored by the old joke:
During one service in a wealthy synagogue, the rabbi got carried away. Falling on hands and knees, forehead to floor, he said, "Oh God, before thee I am nothing.”The Cantor, not to be outdone, also got down, forehead to wood and said, "Oh God, before thee I am nothing." Seeing this, Levy, a tailor in the fourth row, left his seat, fell to his knees, forehead to floor and he too, said "Oh God, before thee I am nothing.” With this, the Cantor elbowed the rabbi and sniffed: "Look who thinks he's nothing!"
On the High Holy Days we are all meant to enter into this time of deep introspection and communal reflection as equals. There is no difference between one congregant and another, or between clergy and congregant. This year I have a Hineni that I feel able to read, and one that I will be able to invite each and every person in my congregation to read - each of us quietly to ourselves, as we prepare to enter into the ritual vessel that we are creating together with mindfulness:
Here I am,
one soul within this prayer community
Like those around me, I bring my own concerns and yearnings to this place,
hoping they will find expression in the time-hallowed words of my people and in the traditions cherished by generations before me.
May I bring the best of my energies to these Holy Days,
approaching this spiritual work with open heart and mind, sincerity, and sustained focus on the deep questions of this season:
Who am I? How shall I live? Where have I fallen short - or failed?
This night I take up the challenge of the Days of Awe:
cheshbon hanefesh - a searching examination of my life,
a moral inventory of my deeds, words, and thoughts.
During the next ten days,
let me face the truth about myself and listen to Your still, small voice.
Taking comfort in your promise that I am always free to change,
released from staleness and routine,
let me know the joy of beginning again.
May I gain strength as I share this task with those around me, united by our common purpose;
tikkun midot (improving our characters) and tikkun olam (repairing the world).
I now prepare myself to pray - one soul amidst this holy congregation.
(copyright CCAR, 2015; Rosh Hashanah Evening Service, p. 16)
It is another of those moments that the editors of Mishkan HaNefesh have provided alternative ways to encounter (the traditional Hineni is still there too). I am grateful for a text that better reflects how I would like to begin. And, of course, the core questions asked in the text above do not need to wait for the eve of Rosh Hashanah. This month of Elul is the time to begin to ask ourselves: Who am I? How shall I live? Where have I fallen short - or failed? Our inventories of deeds, words, and thoughts are likely to be long. We can take the time we need to review and begin the job of return.