- High Holiday Message 5775 - 

One of the first Hebrew words we learned as youngsters was "Hineni." Our teacher called our name and we responded, "Hineni." Here I am. And we were proud that we knew how to say, "Here I am" in the language of our people.
Not long after, we learned that proclaiming "Hineni" is one of the most revered statements in the Torah - not only because we read it on Rosh Hashanah, but because it is one of the most profound expressions of faith in our entire heritage. G‑d asks our patriarch Abraham, history's first Jew, to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Abraham responds, "Hineni. Here I am."
Then we got older. With more maturity, we began to fully grasp the implications of saying - and acting upon - the statement "Here I am." "Hineni" conveys our very presence as a Jew. It says to G‑d that Jewish precepts burn within us, that we yearn to lead a life of righteousness, that we will not just answer His call, but that we will seek our own ways to repair the world and improve the lot of others.
Recently, the tragedy of journalist Steven Sotloff's slaughter at the hands of terrorists horrified us, saddened us and, yes, inspired us. Inspired us because we have learned that although he considered himself a secular Jew, he found a way to say "Hineni" by feigning illness on Yom Kippur so his captors would not realize the reason he was not eating was his desire to honor his tradition by fasting. Inspired us because his family and the Israeli government all cooperated in keeping his Jewishness and dual American and Israeli citizenship under wraps in a vain attempt to extend his life. Inspired us because we also learned that a Jew who didn't overtly practice his Judaism prayed secretly in the direction of Jerusalem. He would see in which direction his Muslim captors were praying and then adjust the angle of his own discreet prayers.
But we do not need to look for such heroic acts as Steven Sotloff's—or, before him, journalist Daniel Pearl's, whose last words uttered to his executioners were "I am a Jew." The same piercing cry, incidentally, that is recited on Yom Kippur in the mincha service when our prophet Jonah is confronted with being thrown from the boat: "I am a Jew."
We have many everyday opportunities to act in ways that proclaim "Hineni." I came across a unique one recently:
I just got back from my nephew's wedding in Bangkok, which also happened to be the first Chasidic wedding in the history of Thailand. In many ways, the event was a culmination of much hard work begun by the first Chabad rabbi of Thailand, Yosef Chaim Kanter. When he moved to the country 21 years ago, Rabbi Kanter found a well-established Jewish community, but one that was very insular and did not extend hospitality to foreign Jews, even though Thailand was visited by about 120,000 Israeli hitchhikers every year. These were mainly young adults who had just finished their mandatory service in the army who had chosen Thailand as a destination for some well-deserved and relatively inexpensive relaxation. And yet, in spite of their bravery, they were not offered a seat at a Shabbos table in Thailand or in the local synagogue.
This troubled Rabbi Kanter and he established a Chabad house just for travelers even though it was a considerable financial strain. He felt obligated to help the young Israelis who had sacrificed so much for our people. So by accepting his position in remote Thailand, he had said, "Hineni," and soon after he had found an important and beautiful way to fulfill that vow of service and righteousness.
Now it so happened that in Rabbi Kanter's first year in Thailand, a backpacker named Yossi visited for a short time. Yossi was then unaffiliated, but, inspired by Rabbi Kanter's commitment to our faith, he became more Jewishly inclined when he later moved to Melbourne, Australia, and he maintained contact with the rabbi.
Twenty years later, when Rabbi Kanter was seeking a soul mate for his daughter, who should become the matchmaker but Yossi, the former backpacker and recipient of the rabbi's hospitality. And how do I know this story? Because the young man Yossi suggested as a match for the rabbi's daughter is my nephew. I was in Thailand for the wedding of my brother's son and Rabbi Kanter's daughter, a lovely pairing that would never have occurred were it not for Rabbi Kanter's life choice: to say "Hineni."
We are told that on Yom Kippur our Jewish souls are revealed. So much so that it is the only day in the year when we pray five times. This is because there are five levels of the soul, and by the time we reach the closing prayer of Neilah, our deepest level, or essence, of our soul, referred to as the Yehida, is revealed. At each of the other prayers, we are climbing a spiritual ladder, and then we reach the crescendo at the conclusion of the service.
We are here today, and we all wish to ascend that spiritual ladder on Yom Kippur, because each and every one of us - whether we know it or not - has a soul that innately feels so passionately Jewish and needs us to reveal it.
On behalf of Chabad of Columbus, I wish you a wonderful year of health, happiness, and many opportunities to see and to do good in the world.