Shemot: Who Am I?

Have you ever looked into the mirror and had that slightly surreal moment where you see yourself but are not sure what or who you are looking at? You see your skin and your hair, your iris and your fingernails, but is that really you? Is my soul inside there somewhere? When I was younger I certainly felt this way from time to time. I would stare and feel that what’s inside of me, the part of me that makes me me, is harder than what can be shown on the outside. I’d ask myself, “Who am I when no one is looking at me?” Who am I today and is that who I’m going to be tomorrow? Looking in the mirror, a dissociative doorway opens up, and it’s like I’m looking at myself and also into myself.  

Who am I?

I relate to anyone who has ever felt like what is inside of them does not always match what is outside. Whether it’s your identity, your sense of well being, your fitness, your joy or happiness, many times looking into the mirror, what reflects back to you feels like you and also doesn’t.  

Sometime during the Renaissance the glass makers on the island of Murano off the shore of Venice, Italy, perfected a technique of adding a thin layer of tin to the back of plate glass and thereby unlocking a mystery – the mirror. Mirrors existed before, for thousands of years, made of polished stone or metal, but they never gave a clear reflection. The Murano mirrors were the first that were straight, with clean lines and clear images. They were also the first to be affordable, meaning that almost anyone could gaze at themselves uninterrupted and without distortion for the first time in history. Yet the clearer the physical reflection, the hazier the spiritual one becomes. 

Sometimes with greater physical certainty comes greater spiritual uncertainty.  

I find it cynical to simply agree with the prejudice that modern science tells us about our conception of the self. Many neuroscientists say that the self can be reduced to the hundred million or so wisps of pulp firing off inside our heads. Our mental life, comprising our thoughts, ambitions, passions, our love, our fear – everything that we think of as our most intimate selves – is the activity of these little specks of jelly.  

We know that our bodies change over time. Our appearance changes. Our neurons change. Our moods change. Our dreams change. Everything is in flux inside and outside of us. Yet somehow there is a continuous line, a oneness, that makes us see ourselves in the mirror and say, “that’s me.”

There is something more than our biological selves that extends through time and is more than a neurological dance party. We can imagine realities that do not exist and bring those realities into existence. We create art. We tell stories. We are part of communities. All of these extensions tell us that our mental center is more than a jello mold inside our skulls. There is more to you than your biology. There is more to you than your physical strength or weakness.  Life, the philosopher Martin Buber writes, “is more than the sum of goal-directed verbs.” The entirety of ourselves is not found in the manipulation of things or experiences. The “I” in each of us, is something that lives in the world and through it, in relation to something much greater than each of ourselves. We are, as the writer David Foster Wallace writes, “both flesh and not.”  

The first time the words “Who am I” are mentioned in the Bible come from this week’s Torah portion, Shemot. The opening readings from the Book of Exodus tell the story of Moses, born into slavery, raised a prince, and sent into exile. In the third chapter, Moses meets God for the first time in the encounter with the burning bush. As he is standing intimately in proximity with God for the first time in his life, Moses asks God two questions. The first is, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11) and the second, Moses asks, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13).  

Moses, standing on holy ground asks two holy questions: 

“Who am I”  and “Who are You?”

Moses, perhaps more than any other character in the Torah, is torn by his identities. He has the privilege of a prince. He carries the oppression of a slave. He is an Egyptian. He is a Jew. He is a foreigner. He is a native. It is no surprise that in all the complexity of his identity, Moses feels unworthy to carry out the task God has asked of him. Like many of us, our identities comingle with our sense of self-worth.The rabbis expand Moses’ question to God to say, “I am a shepherd and he is Pharaoh, of what importance am I such that I speak with kings?” (Ibn Ezra and Rashi) Like so many of us, Moses reduces his life to the narrowest and lowest of identities. 

If we take his question seriously, Moses is not just being humble here, he feels the fear, the confusion, that comes along with all questions of who we really are. His fear enervates. His self-conception debilitates. How many of us, like Moses, ask the question, “Who am I” and respond with the smallest and most narrow of answers. “I am weak.” “I am nothing.” “I don’t deserve it.” “Who am I to stand up and stick my neck out?” 

It’s hard to know what you believe in if you don’t first believe in yourself.  

Moses’s second question breaks open the conundrum of the first, when asking, “Who is God?” The answer given by God, Eheye Asher Eheye, is often translated incorrectly to be, “I am what I am.” Implicitly saying that God is inscrutable and unknowable. But the Hebrew is clear and answers Moses’s question. The Hebrew literally means, “I will be what I will be.” God’s name is in the future tense, not in the present tense. As if to say, we already know what is in the world. It can be discovered. What we do not know is the future. This is God’s very gift to Moses and to the world.  

The rabbis say that when God revealed God’s self to the masses, God appeared as a mirror, reflecting the myriad of Israelites in the light of revelation. (Pesikta D’Rav Kahana 12:22) In God’s mirror, we find the answer to our own deepest questions. Never before has a culture said that your tomorrows do not have to look like your yesterdays. Never before has a book said that the part of you that feels unworthy, enslaved, downtrodden, and disempowered, can be lifted up and liberated.  

God’s answer to the question of who we are is that we can extend ourselves beyond our biology. We were created by the Creator, dreamed of by the Dreamer. Our center is not found in our cells or organs. Our identity is not buried inside us. It is our story. It is the life we lead towards greatness. God’s name is ours and ours is God’s. We will be what we will be.  

You cannot answer the question “Who am I” with only the smallest, most narrow of answers. It does not matter who you’ve been before or what has been done to you or the choices you’ve made; if you make the turn, if you choose to see the light, if you look into God’s mirror, you can grow, you can change, you can speak with kings, you can claim your place. When you extend yourself beyond your limits and partner with what is holy, you can tell the most important story of all – the story of you.

Shabbat Shalom

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