Hineni – I am here; Here am I; Here I am.

I owe you an explanation for my silence. I promised a follow-up on the SNC-Lavalin affair. Though I have been sporadically collecting notes on it, I have been unable to address the issue. I will try to do so next week.

My brother had 3 strokes and a heart attack. Thankfully, yesterday, he seems to have turned a corner. This morning, the doctors are performing an angioplasty to remove the clot in the anterior coronary artery and insert a stent. I will keep you posted periodically on his recovery.

Most discussions on the Torah and in synagogues this week are understandably about Purim and the story of Esther. However, this week’s parashat is somehow much more related to where my mind and feelings are. The Book of Leviticus (Vayikra) initial portion is mostly about the rules governing the korbanot (the sacrificial offerings) and the mikdash (the portable tabernacle) However, it is the initial verse that grabs me. 

א  וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר. 1 And the LORD called unto Moses, and spoke unto him out of the tent of meeting, saying:

God then provides a long list of instructions about the sacrifices. However, the book begins: “the Lord called unto Moses.” In Exodus 24:6, the glory of God settled down on Mount Sinai and the cloud covered the mountain for six days. On the seventh day, the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud. Even on shabat, the cloud of depression, which the rabbis call the cloud of glory, did not lift. God’s voice could be heard calling Moses from within the cloud. At the beginning of Leviticus, Moses was again called. But did the voice of God emerge from within the cloud?

In Exodus, a voice was heard. But the sight of the glory of the Lord was like a “consuming fire” on the mountain top. It was as if the pillar of fire provided a backdrop for the voice emerging from the clouds. I think that when God addresses humans, Moses in this case, it is often through a melancholic haze. But to hear God, the fire of life, the passion must also be present as a precondition for hearing. However, we control neither the cloud that hangs over us or the passion for life. What we can control is our willingness to listen, our willingness to hear, our willingness to pronounce, “Hineni!,” Here I am. Here I stand. Here I am ready to hear.

What do you need to hear the voice of God, particularly if you are not alone in a sanctuary or on a mountain? What do you have to hear in the tent of meeting? First, you have to shut out the distracting noise. You cannot do so physically in a hospital ward; it can be one of the noisiest places. But you can bracket the noise. This is easiest in the early hours of the day before the hubbub begins in earnest. Further, it is not just the noise from outside the hospital room that is so distracting. Even more so are the voices in your own head instilling in you the conviction that everything seems dark and confusing. The despair in that noise, the desperation, the depression, all seem to crowd out optimism and hope.

But bracketing the noise from without and the noises in one’s own head is insufficient. “And the Lord called…” The issue is not whether the call is out there, but whether you are listening for such a call. That is very hard to do when you are depressed, when most of the empirical evidence seems to contradict any possibility of hope. And no one can really tell whether you are listening. Whether it is Moses or yourself, the call of hope is the most private of calls you will ever receive. No amount of cheerleading from the sidelines will determine whether you can hear. And when and if you do hear, the evidence for your picking up the receiver will be slight. But first you have to shut out other noise. Then you have to listen. And only then will it be possible to hear.

Hear what? That it won’t be a bed of roses. That it is going to require effort and sacrifice. For in order to both listen and hear, ironically, in this most private of conversations, you also have to hear the support from around you. But it is you who has to sacrifice. It is you that has to carry the enormous burden of allowing the sun to break through the clouds. No one can do it for you. But you have to hear the command to do it for others – not for you to live a few more years, but for others to live a few more years with you around. You have to hear the call that the effort and sacrifice in the end are not for yourself but for others.

But the call comes through a cloud. You are confused. You are depressed. How can you hear through all the static on the ward, though all that booming and buzzing in your head and through all the encouraging words? The latter, even when expressed with the greatest sincerity, can’t help but be interpreted as rote, as language that imitates enthusiasm and encouragement but can be experienced as fraud. God’s voice may even boom. But can it cut through the ward noise, the internal noise and the words of encouragement that can come across as discouraging in its rhetorical repetition?

However, we can help. We have to keep our messages both sincere and simple. If someone is to listen, and if the only one that is important in speaking is the Lord, then it is critical that core information be transferred in the most concise and clear way possible. If Moses is to hear God, if Moses is to come face to face with death, encouragement is helpful, but it is a journey and confrontation one has to do on one’s own. However, you can reduce the noise as much as possible so that the voice of hope can break through the inevitable cloud of despair.

But what can we do about the distracting, the negative and the melancholy inside oneself as well as within the one who has to listen and hear? Years ago, decades ago, when I was still in my twenties. a close friend was in a bed on a hospital ward in the Toronto General. He was only in his late twenties. As the cliché goes, he was on his death bed.

Another friend flew up from New York. He sat beside our friend, he stroked the hand and the arm of my very sick buddy and then he did the most surprising thing of all. He got in bed with him. He not only got in bed, but he got on top of him and embraced him. It was an embrace that went on for only 5-10 minutes, but it seemed an eternity. Finally, in a totally surprising strong voice, my sick buddy said to H2, “What’s up? Have you come out of the closet? Are you gay?”

It was not just the quip. It was the very best signal you can imagine. My sick friend had turned the corner. The silence of touch can be more embracing than all the words of encouragement in the world. I had sat frozen in the pit of pessimism. H2 pressed ahead to cut through the cloud, not so my sick friend could hear his voice, but so he could hear His voice, the voice of hope in the face of despair.

But, in the end, Moses stands alone in front of the altar. And what does he hear? A list of instructions. Bend your toes. Lift your legs, one at a time. Bend your knees. Lift your left arm. Grip my hand. Lift your right arm. No, not your left. Your right, the one I am touching. The one I am caressing. Open your eyes. Do you see me? How many fingers am I showing you? No suggestions of hope. No promises. Just information. One bit at a time. Tenderness, not toughness. Still the doubt. Still the despair. Concentrate on practices. Concentrate on what you can do. Allow the work to begin. Still the voices of rhetorical hope burdened with despair. Allow the word of the Lord to be heard, to cut through the noise, to create an even better world. For, as in Genesis, it is with words that our world is created.

Worrying is not loving. Wishing does not require pretense. Responsibility does not entail doing for another what the other must do for himself. For it is he, it is Moses on the mount, who must hear the message. This does not mean telling him that everything is better than it is. Honesty is required. Be direct so he can directly attend to the voice that can cut through the cloud. Provide the information. Provide the source for determining its reliability. Do not exaggerate. Focus on possibilities, on resources available and on real opportunities.

If one is sick, very sick, if one is near death so that the man with the scythe is trimming your toe nails, the horseman of the apocalypse does not weigh out crumbs of bread in scanty measure, but opens up fully, completely, as H2 once did. Even if you offer a sip of juice or a spoon of yogurt, expect rejection. Expect anger. Expect even an inner rage worn away by suffering. But that anger can be cut through so that the person facing death can ask to be heard and not repeat that there is no one to ask and no me left to ask.

Moses had to be very tired climbing that mountain. Every time he appears in the inner sanctum of the mishkan, he repeats that experience. He repeats the experience of being on the death bed of his old self for forty days and forty nights. And when a loved one is in the same position, we must connect, not disconnect. I do it by bargaining to try to cut through the anger and the doubt. I have no idea if it works. But it is the best piece of rhetorical equipment in my toolbox.

Others, I know, are better, much better. They can allow their love to whisper and embrace another. They can utter a “small thin sound” that reverberates through, not just the room, but through a whole hospital and it can wrap around a much diminished body in a silken scarf. And they do so, as I observe, not so much by speaking, but by listening, by listening closely. They may not be able to hear the word of the Lord, but they seem to trust that Moses can. 

Some call it the power of positive thinking. But that always sounds trite to me. Certainly, you can accentuate the positive, but this does not entail dishonesty. Certainly, you can avoid the sound that reverberates like thunder that blocks out those whispers. Certainly, you can focus on your own positive feelings of hope. Most of all, you can be present, truly present. You may even witness the miracle embedded in every second. Maybe you may even hear your loved one say, “Hineni,” “Here I am.” It is always possible to tune in rather than tune out.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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