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מה אני — What am I?

September 24, 2015

Inspired by the following shiur by my dear friend Rabbi Steven Exler

“I am Treyvon Martin.”

“I am Michael Brown.”

“Je Suis Charlie”

“Je Suis Juif”

“I am Freddie Gray”

“Yo soy Alberto Nisman”

This past year has seen too many tragedies and too much violence to count.  It is interesting that the response to so many has been to take on the identity of the victim.  On the one hand, this is a powerful statement of solidarity and amplification of the tragedy. Yet we all know that it’s not true.  Donning a hoodie sweatershirt or raising our voice in unity does not transform us into the victim.

The impetus to identify with the other is familiar to us.  Many of the basic tenets of our faith are predicated on the capacity to identify with and empathize with someone else.


When it comes to interpersonal mitzvoth, mitzvot bein adam le-chaveiro we follow the dictum ואהבת לרעך כמוך.  To love your neighbor as yourself.  How do we do this?  How do we treat someone else like ourself?  It has been pointed out that the Torah’s directive to do חסד on the one hand is the paradigmatic example of a מצוה בין אדם לחברו.  But at the same time, when describing the Mitzvah of imatio Dei, following God’s ways והלכת בדרכיו the Talmud famously tells us:

Talmud Sotah 14a

וכי אפשר לו לאדם להלך אחר שכינה? והלא כבר נאמר: +דברים ד+ כי ה’ אלהיך אש אוכלה הוא! אלא להלך אחר מדותיו של הקב”ה, מה הוא מלביש ערומים…אף אתה הלבש ערומים; הקב”ה ביקר חולים,… אף אתה בקר חולים; הקב”ה ניחם אבלים, …אף אתה נחם אבלים; הקב”ה קבר מתים, … אף אתה קבור מתים.

R. Chama bar R. Chanina said: What is the meaning of after the Lord your God you shall walk? Is it possible for a person to walk after the way of God—does it not say the Lord your God is a consuming fire?! Rather the meaning is to walk after the attributes of the Holy One Blessed is He. As he clothes the naked…so should you shall clothe the naked; The Holy One Blessed is He visited the sick…so should you visit the sick; As the Holy One Blessed is He comforted mourners…so should you comfort mourners; As the Holy One Blessed is He buried the dead…so should you bury the dead.

How does providing for the poor and visiting the sick help us to emulate God?

Rabbi Daniel Feldman writes very powerfully in his book Divine Footsteps: Chesed and the Jewish Soul:

On one level, the imperative of “Love your neighbor” calls for a basic level of mandatory services towards one’s circle of family and friends.  On another level, the dictate of imitatio Dei speaks to a less regulated component, calling for a devotion to kindness on an instinctual level, one that by its very nature must fluctuate in correspondence with the degree to which every individual, independently hears that call. (20-21)

In other words, we must act Godly in providing for others by being to internalize and intuit their needs.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (1914-2005), author of a popular book of mussar, Alei Shur writes that this is no simple task:

Let’s grant that we have now succeeded in this training: we truly are focused on our neighbor to see what they are lacking.  But now we are surprised by something new: most of the time we find that they are lacking exactly what we are lacking – and how could this be that most people we meet suffer from exactly the same needs as we do? Here, again, our self-fulness has led us astray: we measure every person with the metric of ourselves, and that which we are missing, we assume they are missing. How is this?  We see ourselves in the other, as if every person we encounter is simply a mirror in which we see ourselves!  That is to say: we have not yet freed ourselves from the self-centered perspective to see that the other is not identified with us… The other is precisely other, different from us in essence, and it is incumbent upon us to focus on the way the other differ from us and see that which the other needs, not that which we need! (Alei Shur II:6)


Our identification with the other extends to the metaphysical and historical as well.  On Pesach, the central task at the Seder is:

בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא ממצרים

In every generation it is one’s duty to see himself as though he had personally come out from Egypt…

We are meant to take on the identity of our ancestors who lived through the Exodus.


Our capacity and mandate to identify with others is not limited to our fellow Jew.  Rabbi Soloveitchik writes powerfully:

The Jewish Heart was commissioned by God to feel the pain of the millions, to share the travail of the world… God wants the Jews to share in the suffering of humanity. The Jewish heartbeat should, according to the will of God, belong not to one person but to the multitudes. The Jewish heartbeat should be the beat of the I, thou, he, we, ye they, of people one knows and of people one has never met.  The Jew belongs to the world and is a universal being. (Days of Deliverance p. 76)

On the surface it would appear that on Yom Kippur we follow this model of radical identification with the other to the point of nullifying our own personal identity.  As we recite the ודוי the confession, and beat our chests, everything is in the plural.

אשמנו בגדנו…

על חטא שחטנו לפניך

We seem to have internalized the lesson of Rebbe Yochanan in the Gemara Sotah 21b:

אמר ר’ יוחנן: אין דברי תורה מקיימין אלא במי שמשים עצמו כמי שאינו…

R. Yochanan said: The words of Torah are only fulfilled by one who makes oneself as though he/she is not….

We accept the blame and the guilt for sins committed by all Jews, not just our own faults.

Yet, it is not so simple.  In the unetaneh tokef prayer we say, based on the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah: וכל באי עולם יעברון לפניך כבני מרון – all mankind will pass before You like b’nei maron. The Gemara (RH 18a) offers three explanations of b’nei maron (a flock of sheep, the ascent of a narrow mountain path, soldiers marching) to emphasize that it mean single-file.  God judges each of us as individuals.

Indeed, Judaism celebrates the value of the individual.  As the Mishnah in Sanhedrin (4:5) famously states:

לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי, ללמדך, שכל המאבד נפש אחת מישראל, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו אבד עולם מלא.

It was for this reason that man was first created as one person [Adam], to teach you that anyone who destroys a life  is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.”

So which one is it?  Do we enter Yom Kippur and negate our personal identities, caught up in our desire to identify with the other as part of the Teshuvah process?  Or do we affirm our personal identities knowing that we are judged  as individuals?

The answer is yes.

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot states in the name of Hillel:

אם אין אני מי לי וכשאני לעצמי מה אני

We normally translate this as: If I am not for myself who will be for me? But if I am only for myself what am I?

A more precise translation leads to a radically different understanding:  If I am not for myself who will be for me. And being that I am for myself, what am I?

Once we have an imperative to act for ourselves we also have an imperative to figure out what that means – who we are and what matters most for us.   Hillel is giving us a directive for self discovery.

To be a Jew means that our very being is defined by these two ideas and values. On the one hand, infinite worth of each individual. On the other hand, total identity with the other.

The Rav writes about this in the context of the communal sacrifices and confessions:

What is the correct definition of a “communal sacrifice?”  It does not mean a sacrifice brought by several people.  This could define not a “communal sacrifice” but a “jointly-owned-sacrifice”…Completely contrary to the jointly-owned sacrifice, which may have many owners, — two or two thousand or two million, according to how many people are participating in it – a “communal sacrifice” has one sole owner, exactly as does an individual offering. Who is its owner”?  It is the entire community of Israel, which according to the law is not the sum total or arithmetic aggregate of such and as many individuals but a single composite personality in its own right.  (On Repentance 102-103)


In preparing this speech I was reminded of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.  Steinbeck tells the story of the Joad family, forced from their farm in Oklahoma to head West in search of work during the Dust Bowl.  In a famous chapter of the book Steinbeck writes of the switch from “I” to “we.”

One man, one family driven from the land; this rust car creaking along the highway to the west.  I lost my land, a single tractor took my ladn.  I am alone and I am bewildered.  And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out.  The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen… This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate – “We lost our land.”

Steinbeck proceeds to criticize the landowners and businessmen responsible for the plight of the Joads and thousands like them: “The quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever the “we.” (Grapes of Wrath 151-152).

As Jews we do not fall into the dichotomy laid out by Steinbeck.  We do not choose between “I” and “we.”  We move seamlessly between them.  We have the capacity to identify with the other because we are able to answer the question מה אני – what am I?

Gemar Chatimah Tovah.


From → Chagim, Yamim Noraim

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