I was seven or eight years old when I learned the story of Akedat Yitzchak. It appears in Genesis 22, where God instructs Abraham to take his son Isaac up a mountain and make of him a burnt offering. Abraham complies, or seems to, binding Isaac to an alter and preparing to slit his throat. An angel materializes and tells Abraham, “Don’t do it! You passed the test. God knows that you believe in Him.” Then a ram appears, and Abraham releases Isaac, sacrifices the ram, and down the mountain go father and son.
I learned the story in Hebrew, out of a children’s chumash (one of the five volumes of the Pentateuch, printed in a book rather than handwritten on parchment). The text would have been significantly pared down, but when I look at the original passage, I remember certain words and phrases. In particular, this one: hineni, “I am here.” Abraham says it thrice: first, when God calls his name ahead of telling him to kill Isaac; next, when Isaac calls his name, becoming suspicious about the purpose of the trip; and last, when the angel calls his name, in what I always understood was something of a panic, a cry to prevent Abraham from actually following through with God’s command. Each time, hineni, and each hineni so full of meaning. I am here, and I will do your bidding. I am here, and I love you. I am here, and I’ve known all along what the deal is.
These are, of course, my interpretations. But obviously hineni made an impression. It showed me something about the power of language and also the beauty. Hineni is really two words bound together—hineh, “here,” and ani, “me” or “I”—and it is one of many words which bound me to Hebrew. It was an early clue as well about the possibilities and expanse of language, the fact that no word can truly be translated from one to another. You can’t say hineni in English, not colloquially; a literal translation would be closer to “here am I.” If it sounds familiar, perhaps you are a Leonard Cohen fan. Hineni is the chorus in “You Want It Darker,” the song Cohen released just a few weeks before he died. Hineni, hineni, he sang. I’m ready my lord.
Dafna Izenberg won this year’s Creative Nonfiction Prize for “The Promised Language,” published in The Fiddlehead, No. 281 (Autumn 2019). She works as an editor and writer in Toronto. Her writing has previously appeared in the New Quarterly and Hazlitt.