The Torah in Parashat Shemot tells of God’s initial prophecy to Moshe at the burning bush, when he called out to Moshe and Moshe responded, “Hineini” – “Here I am” (3:4). God instructed Moshe not to come any further, and to remove his shoes out of respect for the sanctity of the site. Then God proceeded to command Moshe to return to Egypt and demand that Pharaoh release Benei Yisrael.
A startling Midrashic passage, cited by the Tosafists (in Da’at Zekeinim), finds fault in Moshe for using the word “hineini” in responding to God’s call. Citing the verse in Mishlei (25:6), “u-vi’mkom gedolim al ta’amod” (“…do not stand in the place of great ones”), the Midrash comments that God was angered by Moshe’s use of the word “hineini” – the same word that Avraham used when God called out to him before issuing the command of the akeida (to bind his son on the altar – Bereishit 22:1). The Midrash apparently found Moshe guilty of “standing in the place of great ones,” inappropriately using the response of a “great one” – Avraham – to a prophetic calling. As punishment, the Midrash continues, God announced to Moshe, “Al tikrav halom” (“Do not proceed any further”), which the Midrash explains to mean that Moshe was denied the privileges of the priesthood and kingship, the rights to which were given, respectively, to his brother (Aharon) and to the dynasty of King David. It seems that Moshe was too presumptuous by responding to God’s call with the same word with which Avraham had responded to a similar call, and so he was denied positions of distinction that had (evidently) been destined to be held by his descendants.
We might wonder why exactly the Midrash found it inappropriate for Moshe to use the word “hineini.” Even assuming he was aware that this was the word with which Avraham had responded to the prophetic call he received, why was this deemed an expression of arrogance?
One possible answer is that the problem lies not in the response of “hineini” per se, but in the discordance between this reply and the ensuing exchange between God and Moshe. The word “hineini” is often understood to mean not simply, “here I am,” but rather that one is fully committed to fulfill the other’s wishes. Avraham responded “Hineini” to God’s call as a way of expressing his preparedness to do anything God commanded – and sure enough, God proceeded to command him to do the unthinkable – to sacrifice his beloved son – and Avraham complied (until he was told to withdraw his sword). Likewise, when Yaakov called Yosef and asked him to travel to check on his brothers, Yosef replied, “Hineini” (Bereishit 37:13) despite knowing that his brothers despised him, and likely suspecting that they might seek to cause him harm. “Hineini” proclaims one’s absolute, unwavering obedience, and willingness to obey any command and comply with any request, no matter what might be entailed.
Moshe, however, after answering “Hineini,” tried to excuse himself from complying with God’s command. God instructed him to return to Egypt and lead Benei Yisrael to freedom, and Moshe initially refused, giving several different reasons why he did not want to serve this role. Possibly, it is here where the Midrash found fault. Moshe spoke in very lofty terms, pronouncing his unbridled loyalty to God, but in practice, he was not – at this point – prepared to fully comply with the command. And this, perhaps, is why the Midrash found the response of “Hineini” inappropriate – because it was not backed by truly unlimited commitment to accept any challenge and fulfill any command.
If so, then the Midrash here warns against lofty, idealistic speech which is not followed up by action. It teaches us that is inappropriate to come across as something we are not, to give an impression of a stature that we have yet to achieve. If we present ourselves as though we’ve reached the lofty level of “hineini,” then we must be sure that this image is truly reflected by our actions, and not a vain attempt to earn respect and prestige.