This essay originally appeared in Kol Mevaseret 5775.
In the Torah, every word is used deliberately and purposefully. If there is a word used twice, there are bound to be multiple commentaries on why that is the case. If a word is spelled with a slight variation, commentators will find a lesson to be derived from it. Throughout Tanach, many people are summoned by HaShem and others, and there are a variety of responses to these summons. One outstanding response that is used is “hineini,” literally translated to mean “behold, here I am.” This wording seems to combine a certain keenness possibly bordering on zealousness. The word “hineini,” with that specific pronunciation, appears throughout Tanach a total of twelve times. From multiple interactions within Tanach when people use the word “hineini” one can understand what this ostensibly obscure word means.
The first time it appears is in relation to Avraham Avinu. Avraham had just banished his son, Yishmael, from his home and made a peace treaty with Avimelech. Then, HaShem called to Avraham who responded immediately with the one word “hineini”1. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch notes that there is a tipcha (cantillation sign) under the word "Avraham" in this posuk to show his readiness to serve HaShem. Avraham demonstrated this readiness through his use of the word “hineini”. It is interesting to note that Rashi comments on the fact that right before HaShem summoned Avraham, HaShem and the Satan were having a conversation wherein HaShem said that if He asked Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak, Avraham would oblige. When faced with this seemingly unbearable challenge, Avraham didn’t hesitate to prove HaShem correct with the use of the same word “hineini”2. Rashi3 there describes the word "hineini" as a response of the pious. He continue his explanation and calls it a "phrase of humility and readiness." Ohr HaChaim explains that HaShem’s call to Avraham and Avraham’s response convey the message that Avraham was responding to HaShem's summon by saying "HaShem, I know that You're about to ask something big of me and I don’t know what it is, but I am ready for anything that you may ask."
Later on, during Akeidas Yitzchak, a malach called to Avraham by saying his name twice, to which Avraham once again responded "hineini." Rashi explains this double language as a "phrasing of endearment" and the Midrash Rabba4 adds that it is also a "language of alacrity." Interestingly, Rav Hirsch and the Kli Yakar comment on this double language and say that Avraham needed to be called twice because he was so engrossed in doing the mitzvah and he didn’t want to be distracted. This helps prove that his first use of the word “hineini” was not sanctimonious or sacrilegious, but genuine, nor was it a singular event. This is proven by the fact that when the malach of HaShem called Avraham, he once again responded with the word "hineini". Avraham's use of the word "hineini" in response to the malach portrays the fact that Avraham was always ready and willing to be at HaShem's beck and call.
Yaakov uses the word “hineini” on multiple occasions, the first of which was when a malach of G-d called to him after Lavan asked Yaakov to pick what kind of sheep he would like as his payment for the work he had done5. Rashi6 notes that the malach was sent during a time of suffering. Yaakov remained strong in his observance of the mitzvos in the face of the adversity of Lavan7.
The next time Yaakov said “hineini” was years later in response to HaShem’s calling him “Yaakov” during his journey to Be’er Sheva. Rashi8 once again defines “hineini” as a response to a “phrase of endearment”. Rav Hirsch explains why Yaakov felt the need to specifically, now, show his complete dedication to HaShem. He explains that Yaakov became depressed when HaShem called him Yaakov instead of Yisrael, and he therefore immediately responded with “hineini” to show that he accepted, in advance, everything HaShem would send him with the hope of rectifying what he believed to be a rift in his relationship with HaShem.
Yaakov’s brother, Eisav, used the word “hineini” in response to Yitzchak's call (Bereishis 27:1). There is no specific commentary on this use of “hineini,” assumedly because it originated in the fact that Eisav was totally dedicated to his father due to his kibud av9, or perhaps it was a self-serving "hineini" and he wanted to raise his esteem in his father's eyes as he was about to receive his bracha. If the latter is the case then Eisav's “hineini” was an exception and cannot have any general rules applied to it. If it was purely because of his kibud av and dedication to Yitzchak, then perhaps this use of the word can help begin to form an understanding of how one reaches the level of “hineini.” Eisav’s usage came from the fact that he completely dedicated himself to his father and was therefore ready to do whatever he asked.
Like father like son: When Yaakov called Yosef, he responded immediately with the word “hineini”10. Rashi comments on this posuk that “hineini” is a "phrase of humility and readiness.” Yosef was ready to do whatever his father asked of him. He knew that this task could be life-threatening because his brothers hated him11, but it was mitzvas Kibud Av12. Yosef was Yaakov’s "ben zekunim" and therefore Yaakov spent much time passing on his heritage to Yosef13. As a result, Yosef felt especially connected to his father. The natural thing for Yosef to do when his father made a request of him was to fulfill his bidding because of the deep connection he and his father had.
Shmuel & Yeshayahu
The first time the word “hineini” appears in Navi is when HaShem first called to Shmuel. Shmuel had been living with Eli HaKohen and assumed that it was Eli who had called him, so he responded “hineini,” thus showing his complete dedication14. Due to the fact that Eli raised him, Shmuel was already conditioned to respond to a summons with “hineini” as seen a few posukim later when Eli calls to Shmuel by saying “bni” and Shmuel responded "hineini”15. From here one can infer that “hineini” is word which shows one’s absolute devotion to another being.
In sefer Yeshayahu, as Yeshayahu described the final redemption, he explained that the Jewish People will call out to HaShem and HaShem will respond with the word “hineini”16. Radak explains that throughout the exile, the Jewish People would forget HaShem, but on the day of redemption they will remember and call out to Him and He will respond with “hineini” to show His readiness to acknowledge their call. HaShem's readiness represents a declaration of devotion and investment, which leads to a willingness to fulfill the request of the supplicant. HaShem never abandons the Jewish People while in exile. Rather, He is interacting with them through hester panim. Because of His continuous outpouring of chessed towards them, He still feels the connection and responds to our calls with the willingness of “hineini.”
All In A Word
From Avraham and Yaakov who recognized the magnitude of what HaShem does and dedicated their lives to Him, one can learn where the response of “hineini” originates. Eisav, Yosef and Shmuel later adapted it for their own purposes, to convey their devotion to their fathers and mentors. From the many key players in Tanach who use the word “hineini,” one can derive the multiple nuances of the word “hineini” and at which point in a relationship it can be used.
1. Bereishis 22:1↩
3. Commentary to 22:1↩
5. Bereishis 31:11↩
6. Bereishis 48:16↩
7. See Rashi’s commentary to Bereishis 32:5↩
9. Devarim Rabba 1:15↩
10. Bereishis 37:13↩
11. Rashbam 37:13↩
12. Rashi 37:13↩
13. See Rashi’s commentary to Bereishis 37:3↩
14. Shmuel 1 3:4↩
15. Shmuel 1 3:16↩
16. Yishaya 52:6↩