Being a Shaliach Tzibur, a Servant of the Community: Lessons from Yom Kippur
by Rabbi Mishael Zion
In the small minyan in Jerusalem where I spent the high holy days of my childhood, as the shaliach tzibur of mussaf would rise to start his prayers, a hush of trepidation would go through the congregation. It is a trepidation that I imagine many daveners feel before mussaf, as the chazzan opens the service with one of the most raw and open prayers in the machzor: Hineni, heAni miMa’as… “Here I am, a person of impoverished acts.”
The drama of the moment is immense. It emanates from the chutzpah to dare lead the Mussaf service, playing the role of the Cohen Gadol [High Priest] on Yom Kippur who enters the innermost places. On the other hand this moment requires the courage to stand before the congregation and admit that one is deeply unworthy (and with the occasional uppity chazzan, the slight disingenuousness of the moment … ).
This is the prayer of the first Jewish leader on the first day of the year, but it is not just about standing up in prayer. Taking a deeper look, this prayer can be read as the basic statement before taking up action. The “Hineni” prayer is the coda of any Shaliach Tzibur, a person sent by the community.
As we face moments where leadership is needed in the coming year – in our professions, family and community – this prayer holds some important insights on taking action in the world.
For me, the hardest word to utter in that prayer is its first one: Hineni. Here I am. Who can say that today? Am I really here? Present? Ready to serve? Avraham had a Hineni when God asked him to take up the hardest of tasks. Moses had a Hineni at the burning bush. Do I have a Hineni?
Whenever we exercise leadership, stepping up to the plate to take action, we are in essence saying “Hineni”. The ability to have “Hineni” presence emanates first from an awareness of one’s own presence and abilities. There are moments when we are called to serve; when our skills, abilities or wisdom can serve our community. At those moments, we must be present.
Of course, an overbearing awareness of one’s abilities can be dangerous. At the same moment in which we step up to the plate, we must also hold on to the awareness of our unworthiness of the moment:
“Hineni – Here I am, a person impoverished of acts… I have come to serve on behalf of the people of Israel who have sent me – despite the fact that I am not worthy of this moment.” Without that basic humility, no successful action can be taken. In fact, the act of leadership must be done through a deep awareness of our flaws, not just our abilities. As the prayer continues: “Please do not allow my own sins and shortcomings to bear on my actions on their behalf”. In similar fashion, in leadership one’s own flaws will almost always spill over into the work being done. An awareness of one’s own shortcomings, and a concerted effort to prevent that spillover, is required.
Finally, in the closing paragraphs, the Hineni prayer reminds us that we can’t do it alone. We must find allies, support and partnership. In this case, the prayer turns to angels. Many of us shift uncomfortably in our seats when Jewish liturgy discusses angels. But when push comes to shove, on the days of judgment, we must seek help wherever we can get it. Being a Shaliach Tzibur never means going at it alone, but rather galvanizing the voices of the community to join you in prayer, to join you in action.
May we now to truly step up to the challenges facing our families and communities in the coming year.