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Parshat Toldot: ‘הנני Hinneni’ – On Identity Development in an Instant World

I share a short thought from a very long blog with slight reluctance.  We live in a world where memes and twitters are about the length of our concentration. This week it becomes even more relevant since this theme of instant v process touches at the core of all the narratives in the parsha (see the attached blog) What I write, even in a long blog, just touches the surface of the ideas that I explore over weeks and weeks in my classes. To summarise an idea that deserves months of thought into three paragraphs seems deceptive and inauthentic and yet this is what I am doing in the hope that  the reader may go on to read the blogs and also because I have learnt that even a short idea can trigger meaningful reflection.  So with reluctance I share the beginning of an idea below.

‘הנני  Hinneni’ – On Identity Development in an Instant World

It is fascinating that three times in Yitzchak’s life, the phrase ‘hinnei – I am here’ arises.  The first is at the akeida when Yitzchak says to Avraham ‘Father’, Avraham responds ‘Hinneni Beni – I am here my son’ (22:7). Twice in that narrative Avraham responds with Hinnei – the first is to God, in response to his call to take his son up the mountain, the second is to his son when he calls to him. The tensions between the Hinnei to God and the Hinnei to his son, the Divine command and the ethical humanistic intuition is at the heart of the entire episode and often lies at the core of our religious and personal identity. Avraham’s response of Hinneni to Yitzchak, at surface reading, feels fraudulent his intimations of presence to his son, a sham (see https://contemplatingtorah.wordpress.com/2014/11/06/parshat-vayera-the-silent-sacrifice/). In that Hinneni lies a deep sense of deception – a deception that invades the inner life of Yitzchak from that moment forth. 

The second is when Yitzchak calls to Eisav (27:2) the text says ‘ויאמר אליו בני, ויאמר אליו הנני‘ – The Hinneni call comes from Eisav to his father, it is the opposite of the dialogue from father to son at the akeida, here it is from son to father and here it is the son who comes to deceive the father. Eisav makes Yitzchak believe he is something he is not (I’m using the midrashic lense here), he recognises Yitzchak’s hidden, maybe unconscious, desire to mirror him, to live a hedonistic lifestyle of hunting meat and instant results, rather than Abrahamic dynasty of future promises and the slow process of a developing nation. (for a detailed account of this idea see https://contemplatingtorah.wordpress.com/2014/11/20/hunting-the-blessing-a-lesson-in-waiting-parshat-toldot/).

Then there is the final hinneni:

וַיָּבֹא אֶל-אָבִיו, וַיֹּאמֶר אָבִי; וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֶּנִּי, מִי אַתָּה בְּנִי. יט וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל-אָבִיו, אָנֹכִי עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ–עָשִׂיתִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ אֵלָי; קוּם-נָא שְׁבָה, וְאָכְלָה מִצֵּידִי–בַּעֲבוּר, תְּבָרְכַנִּי נַפְשֶׁךָ. 

And he came unto his father, and said: ‘My father’; and he said: ‘Here am I; who art thou, my son?’ 19 And Jacob said unto his father: ‘I am Esau thy first-born; I have done according as thou badest me. Arise, I pray thee, sit and eat of my venison, that thy soul may bless me.’

Again the order here is reversed, we resort back to the akeida narrative where the son says ‘father’, and the father responds with ‘Hinneni’ – I am here.  But this time, unlike the akeida, it is the son that deceives the father, not the father deceiving the son.  This time, when Yaakov calls to his father, he is perhaps giving him a final chance to redeem himself. He is beckoning him to recognise his younger son and recognise himself within the same situation, a young boy, innocent, naive simple – the boy before the akeida, the boy standing by his father hoping waiting, praying dreaming of a better tomorrow – the boy before the sacrifice.  The order before the chaos, the simple before the entangled. But Yaakov can see that boy no more, for it is too painful, too raw, too agonising to look at who he was before he wasn’t.  And so instead, he blinds himself and concurrently blurs his distinct identity and asks ‘who are you my son’?  In that moment Yaakov understands that he must sacrifice an element of self to become someone new, something he can only do through deception.  At that moment he sacrifices his simplicity, his clear straightforward black and white existence, the order of the tent and enters into the realm of ‘Hinneni’ – a world where nothing is what it seems, where complexity reigns and the only way to return to self is through a long arduous, painful and sometime insidious journey, a struggle to become someone new that combines all the broken fragments of identity – to ultimately become the one who struggles with man and God -Yisrael – an identity stricken with complexity and disintegration, but also a recollected wholeness that can now confidently respond to the Hinnei call.

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