I feel paralyzed, choked at times, as I watch the news, read the updates, the tweets and wait to witness a David and Goliath miracle, where the small but just defender vanquishes the mightier force. But it seems the Iron Curtain has not rusted in spite of the years, or the fall of the Soviet Union decades ago. It feels impossible to see what unfolds behind it. Is it better not to know if this moment has unleashed the worst of humankind? I am not sure.
To be a Jew is to know that existential threats never subside for long, and we must find faith in our history, our tenacity and our survival. Today, the world watches, waits and wonders: Will President Volodymyr Zelensky rescue Ukraine from the bloodthirsty talons of an insatiable despot in hiding—one who dictates, to his minions, the most hideous of mandates to destroy both life and monuments to the dead? Will Putin prevail in his vicious mission of sealing his legacy of destruction and greed?
I lurch between horror and disbelief. How is this happening again? It had seemed to me that the human race had disavowed this brand of terrorism by the middle of the 20th century. I recall my father sharing his own stories of being a high school senior (the same age as my students now), reading the papers, unable to imagine the massacre of our people, yet compelled to bear witness. He couldn’t wrap his head around the numbers of dead growing from one day to the next. And here we are today, my father mercifully deceased, for he could not endure this a second time, and we, as then, have no access to the true death toll. I shudder to imagine what it is at this moment.
So, we remain present, aware, prepared, humbled, and terrified of what will be, of what we cannot control. Echoing in my soul, I hear the dreadful words we chant at the High Holy Days:
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not…
…Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented…
When I was younger, standing beside my mother in the synagogue as we prepared for this ultimate expression of our helplessness, she used to tell me that this poem terrified her more than anything else she could name. Her eyes widened, her lips tightened and pallid, her voice reedy, she gathered herself to say those words barely audibly, as if to let God know that she understood her insignificance in the face of His omnipotence. But she also was sickened by her comprehension that not only might this be her last moment, but it might be mine. I see pictures from Ukraine and wonder if those people were able to board the train, cross into safe havens or ever sleep again.
I find myself amazed, awed actually, by President Zelensky’s courage and resolve. From the start, he reassured his people: “Ya Tut. I am here.” He proclaimed that he remains of the people, with the people, and he reminds us all that a leader stands shoulder to shoulder with those who chose him, who decided that he should carry them forward, even along with those who perhaps did not choose him. Zelensky makes himself visible through short videos, gives hope that he is safe, that he is still the commander of the military, and that he will lead Ukraine to a future, to a better place than this. He stands as a father to the nation and as a man yearning to strengthen the link between his people and those who live in decency and democracy just to the west of Ukraine. Zelensky’s call for solidarity must be heard as the sounding of an alarm to all of us. Let’s not forget that fascism is newly thriving in neighboring Hungary, that the new leaders of the UK and Italy represent the far right of the political spectrum, and that under the leadership of the former US president, authoritarianism was unfolding and gaining popular support in our own country. Our fragile human rights must be nurtured and bolstered both internally and externally. We cannot assume that the system that supports us today is assured for the future as well.
But there’s a price to be paid when a courageous leader assumes the sacred duties of caring for others, for preserving life. It calls to mind another High Holy Days prayer, Hineni, which means“Here I am” or “I am here.” While we sometimes see clergy as parents tending their families, in this prayer, our spiritual leaders come forward before God as children, seeking His approval that they might merit the weighty duties of leading a people through the inevitably chaotic, potentially doomed journey of day-to-day existence.
Hineni is also a prayer in which the leader seeks permission to lead, to pray on behalf of others, to represent them. I imagine the weight of Zelensky’s responsibility at this time when courage, resolve and reassurance must sustain Ukraine, and when he must provide even in moments of doubt. Hineni, I am here, with Ukraine.
Even more daunting is that this word Hineni, originally found in the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, alludes to the moment when God calls out to Abraham and commands him to sacrifice his and his wife Sarah’s only son, Isaac. Abraham replies thusly with great humility, prepared to do what he must, however traumatic it will be. Hineni, here I am, is the ultimate acknowledgement of our smallness and mortality. It is an acknowledgement, even an embrace, of full submission, no matter what that implies for yourself and those who depend on you.
For me, the word Hineni is two sides of one coin, and I would name that coin “Presence.” On the one hand, being present is to offer comfort to others, stopping to listen and to reaffirm a connection. It’s to remind us that we are not alone, even when we might feel abandoned or misunderstood. Being present is a tranquil concept that does not necessarily require action but, instead, absorbing the energy or sensation of a given moment. This returns me to my childhood, standing beside my mother during Untaneh Tokef so that she not feel the terror of her mortality alone, though practically speaking, I could not do anything to soothe her.
On the other hand, the word Hineni evokes a sense of urgency to be imminently available to help someone. Each time I recertify my CPR/AED/First Aid credentials with the American Red Cross, I ask myself what I will do in that moment when someone needs help, and it is up to me to say, “Hineni,” and to jump into action to save a life. Will I panic? Will I remember the procedures while waiting for an ambulance? My duty is to save a life in that moment. As Jews, we are taught that saving a life is the same as saving an entire world. One reflexive word has the ability to change an entire world. Our responsibility is both humbling and awe-inspiring.
Zelensky’s position today is no different than Abraham’s. Just as the future of the Israelites rested with Abraham’s inheritance of the nationhood promised by God, in its current echo, the future of Ukraine rests with Zelensky. Imagine the responsibility of managing a country’s collective, protracted grief—its people’s vast needs and their expectation of rescue or at least reassurance. He responds: “Hineni.” He comforts the people, “Ya tut.” I am here. I do not hide. We proceed together. He will save his people.
To me, there is no question that a central aspect of Vladmir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is about killing off a Jew who dares to thrive and whose country prospers under his benevolence. The connection between where Zelensky stands today as father to his country, symbolically holding hands with his family of almost 40 million Ukrainians, haunts me as I recall Janusz Korczak, the Polish educator, holding the hands of the children in his orphanage in Warsaw in the summer of 1942 when the Nazis corralled them to be executed together in Treblinka. He’d been offered safe passage out of the ghetto but refused to leave the children behind. Korczak, to his charges, also echoed, “I am here. I walk with you.”
Zelensky has made the same pledge to his countrypeople. When Russia invaded Ukraine, he rebuked Russia’s murderous advances, mustered Ukraine’s allies and refused to abandon the promise of a free future for Ukraine’s children: “Our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children and we will protect all of this.”
Each day I look for news that Zelensky is still with us—with Ukraine, with the West, with the Jews—and not a memory of the good fight. When I consider the filter through which we see world events, I fear that we do not know the full story in Ukraine, in particular, how tenuous their battle victories are, and whether or not these wins accurately reflect the possibility that Ukraine will win this war. If they do not, what will become of the people who can not escape? Will their cries for help be heard or heeded? I fear that we will not know the full danger, and will find ourselves wondering what we might have done to be more effective.
I struggle today with memories of how I reacted to my father’s stories about reading the papers during World War II. I recall listening to him without being able to contextualize his experience because it seemed so clear to me that this was a problem that was resolved. For him, it was a daily trigger, particularly as the only American-born child in the family. Most of his immediate family could have been murdered the very moment he was readng the news. For a poor family like his, there was no way to communicate across the ocean, and waiting for any updates took a matter of months at the soonest. For my father and his family, to be present meant to read the news reports or listen to the radio, and to shudder. And to assume the worst.
There was no reason to hope for miracles when the numbers of murdered Jews kept growing.
Yet the Nazis were vanquished, Mussolini was executed, and the Nuremberg trials led to the execution and punishment of many other Nazis. Decades later, World War II seemed like a dark chapter in history that was over. When I tried to reorient my father to modern times with such reminders, he seemed dubious. He never said, “Thank God for that.” Instead, he either remained silent or expressed hope that I was right.
I teach in a school where students hail from countries on most of the continents on the globe. Some are first-generation Americans, but many of them are themselves immigrants. The morning it was reported that Russia had invaded Ukraine, my students moved about the halls as if it were another day, but once we settled into the first class period, I asked them if they had heard or seen the news on their phones. Their bodies visibly slumped, some eyes widened, and a few students nodded their heads. I asked them how it affected them. While most kids remained quiet, my students from the Baltic region expressed fear for their families that still live there and reported that their families were wiring money overseas to help their relatives cross a border. Like my father, my students watch and wait on this side of the ocean, tangled between dread and hope.
The call and response must endure: Hineni. We are here.
Dalia Hoffman teaches high school English in Chicago, Illinois. She is passionate about integrating literature with music and the arts, seeing this as a portal to access the written word. In 2014, she began collaborating with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to write curricula to teach Shakespeare’s plays as both literary and musical texts. She also teaches literature and language through student-centered inquiry, where they construct their own knowledge using texts. Dalia holds a M.A. in Medieval English Literature from Michigan State University and a B.A. in English Literature and Judaic Studies from the University of Michigan.