By Cantor David E. Reinwald
Da lifnei mi atah omeid. Know before whom you stand. We see this text every time we are in the sanctuary. It is a reminder to us of the holiness of the space we inhabit and is an often featured moniker within synagogue sanctuaries. We have a heightened sense of awareness of this feeling of holiness during the High Holidays. Everything is in an elevated state around us. We read lofty poetic prayers, listen to elaborate music, sing from the depths of our souls, and we come to temple dressed in our finery. There certainly is something set apart about this time of year. We gather again as an entire congregation, and it is so special to have that feeling that our congregation is all together. It is a feeling of wholeness.
One of my all-time favorite prayers to sing is the Hin’ni, one of the very first prayers which make up our Rosh Hashanah evening service. It is a prayer of profound humility by the cantor, asking for God to recognize the cantor’s prayers as a perfect plea on behalf of the congregation. It sets the tone for all prayers uttered to be prayers which are “innocent and sweet and pleasing,” where the theme of love becomes “the banner we raise in Your sight” with the power to “conceal all our sins and make them as though they had not been.” It goes on to ask that, through our prayer, God may “change our afflictions to joy and gladness” and “our misdeeds to acts of life.” This prayer is one that I hold with great value when singing it that one time each year. It has resounding meaning time and time again representing the power of prayer.
Hin’ni. Here I am. This is the single word that is uttered in opening this prayer. It is another form of the same word, hineini, uttered by our forefathers Abraham and Jacob and by our great teacher Moses. It is a centering meditation. It is a profound statement of spiritual self-recognition. It is a declaration of an individual’s presence and one’s understanding of connecting with the divine. Abraham, Jacob and Moses were each reduced to this single response amidst life-changing moments. We read in the Torah: Abraham hears God’s call to stop his sacrifice of Isaac. Hineini. Jacob struggles to make a difficult choice—should he uproot his family and people to bring them to Egypt? He hopes for a better life under the watchful eye of his son Joseph, but knows that risks abound. Hineini. Moses experiences God face-to-face appearing in the form of a burning bush, unconsumed. He, too, then understands this is no chance encounter. Hineini.
Each year, as though supported by this historical foundation, I walk into the sanctuary singing the glorious words of the Hin’ni arranged by Cantor Israel Alter. I feel this stunning setting entirely captures the mystery and power of this majestic moment. When I sing this arrangement, I feel each note throughout my body. It takes full presence to make every tone and every word ring throughout the sanctuary. I hope that this feeling is transmitted to each of my congregants who are standing and searching to see from where I am coming, or just taking in the vibrant and awe-inspiring experience. Alter has captured the traditional mode of the chant of Hin’ni, while allowing the accompaniment to give it musical ground upon which to stand. LISTEN
The words of Hin’ni reach both into the past and meet us here in the present. This duality is what Los Angeles-based composer Michael Isaacson has captured in his modern, contemporary style. Isaacson has created a haunting setting, all in English, which tiptoes upon the fragility of these words. Cantor Faith Steinsnyder, a dear teacher of mine, sings Isaacson’s Hin’ni beautifully and artfully. LISTEN
Finally, the meaning of “Hineini” was so important to me, that for the creation of my own album, Here I Stand, I asked my friend and album producer Josh Friedman to compose a modern song for me to sing upon this theme. His composition sums up everything I value about this prayer and its connection to our tradition. LISTEN
Here I am. Here I stand. Here I pray. Here I am. Hin’ni.
Hin’ni, arranged by Cantor Israel Alter. Yamim Noraim: Days of Awe 5-CD set, Transcontinental Music Publications, performed by Cantor David Goldstein.
Hin’ni, by Michael Isaacson. The Jewish Music of Michael Isaacson: Made in America: 1970-1995, Transcontinental Music Publications, performed by Cantor Faith Steinsnyder.
Hineini, by Josh Friedman and Cantor David Reinwald. Here I Stand, performed by Cantor David Reinwald.
David Reinwald is the cantor of Temple Beth Sholom of Santa Ana, CA and a member of the American Conference of Cantors. He is a native of Chicago, and a graduate of Indiana University and the HUC-JIR Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music. His album, Here I Stand, is widely available through online stores for download and on CD through CDBaby.com.