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Hineni

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I am here. Here I am.
11/11/2008

Oy31LJ_

Sarah is here. Here Sarah is.

My apartment is littered with post-its and print-outs bearing the words Hineni: Here I am and an X. Because, bizarre as it may seem, I sometimes forget it.

But of course I’m here. I can feel my couch underneath my butt. I can see the diamond-shaped painting my maternal grandmother did decades ago hanging on my wall. I can smell the cumin and lamb in the air from tonight’s dinner.

But over the last few years I have come to realize more than ever that hineni means more than existing in physical space and going through the motions of life. Hineni means making a conscious effort to be present and emotionally invested in each moment. It’s something I especially struggled with in college, when I didn’t know what I wanted to study or do with my life, or who I wanted to become. Back then, I decided not to really give a damn, and just float through classes and days and years until someone or something got in my way.

Having been in the real world for a few years now, I’ve established a pretty comfortable routine for myself. I wake up in a neighborhood filled with vibrant young people and small businesses, tasty food and good draft beers, easy access to the lake, and a burgeoning puppy and baby population.

I take the red line to work at an organization whose mission resonates with me, working with caring, intelligent, witty people for whom I have great respect and from whom I can learn a lot.

At the end of the day I get back on my beloved CTA train and head home. Sometimes I’ll meet a friend for dinner or drinks, or go to the gym, or take a walk up Clark Street to people watch and see what new books are in the window at Women and Children First.

It’s not that I’m unhappy with this routine; to be perfectly frank, it works very well for me. But I’m running on autopilot, once again just gliding through the days and weeks, tackling roadblocks as they come along but ultimately staying the course.

Not long after graduating from school I realized that with real world freedoms come real world responsibilities. Even though I was theoretically free to live however I wanted, and to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted to do it, in practice, life became much more regimented and bland. I felt confined by my responsibilities, to the point where I didn’t feel like I really had choices, just tasks that had to be completed to get through the day. I felt like I was losing control over my life, even while it was all still very neat and tidy and functional.

So I decided to start keeping pseudo-kosher. I already wasn’t eating pork, so I decided to stop mixing milk and meat as well (I will never be able to give up shellfish). I admit that I made the decision in part to annoy my then-roommates. But I also hoped it would help me feel more present, decisive and in control of my own life. By scrutinizing a decision as mundane as whether to put Swiss cheese on my turkey sandwich or not, I was taking an active role in shaping my daily life. I was making active choices – however inconsequential to the world around me – rather than settling for whatever was most convenient or conventional.

It didn’t stick. It sort of worked for a while, but let’s cut to the chase: Swissburgers are damn tasty. I decided I needed a Plan B.

During high school I was an active B’nai B’rith Girl, part of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO). That was where I first learned the Hebrew word hineni, It’s how we responded when attendance was being taken at meetings.

At first I was confused by this response. I knew that ani was the Hebrew word for “I,” and that po meant “here,” so I didn’t understand why the reply wouldn’t be ani po or po ani (my Hebrew vocabulary is passable, but my grammar is ra m’od -- very bad).

I’m still friends with a few of my sister B’nai B’rith Girls, as we called each other, and one of them in particular has always truly been like a big sister to me. After one of our lengthy long distance conversations a little over a year ago I became nostalgic and pulled out some old photos, including some from that first meeting when I heard a roomful of girls proclaiming hineni. I decided to re-examine its meaning.

It turns out that in the Torah, hineni is used when someone is being called upon directly by G-d. Its meaning goes beyond the physical act of being and denotes a spiritual, intellectual, and corporal presence all at once.

G-d’s not doing a whole lot of talking to me these days, and I’m not necessarily picking up my phone and calling Him/Her/It. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be living each day and responding to myself and the world around me with the same fervor and dedication that Abraham or Moses showed when G-d called upon them back in the day.

I needed a way to remind myself of this fact day in and day out.

So Plan B: Get a tattoo of the word hineni. A permanent reminder that I am here. That it is time to stop passively floating through days. Time to actively choose my own path, rather than following the one of greatest comfort and least resistance. Time to take ownership over every minute, hour, and day of my life.

As the weeks went by and I hadn’t decided on the right Hebrew font or researched which tattoo artist or parlor to go to, I began to question why I couldn’t just take the plunge already. And then it dawned on me: the tattoo was just another crutch.

Irony of ironies, by permanently inking “here I am” on my body, I realized I would actually be giving myself an excuse not to be here. I could float along “present” in each moment because of course I’m here; I have the proof tattooed on my foot and I need to do no more! But it would lose all meaning. I would once again be taking the most convenient (albeit the most painful) path. I could forget to actually be here because I could use the tattoo to simply appear as though I was present in every moment. And I couldn’t let that happen.

So the hineni tattoo was scrapped.

Since giving up this idea, I haven’t massively overhauled my life. My daily routine still includes the same neighborhood, the same commute, and the same job, and yet nothing really feels the same. Because while there will no doubt be occasional days when I shift into autopilot, I am starting to embrace the fact that I am the lead actor in my own life; in each misstep, triumph, and everything in between. I am finally giving myself the chance to believe: hineni.

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