Shemot: Who are We?

As the events unfolded yesterday on Capitol Hill, I like so many, was taken aback by the brazen and swift insurrection by domestic terrorists. Four people died, dozens of peace officers were wounded, the Confederate Flag, a symbol of hatred and racism, was paraded through statuary hall for the first time in U.S. history. It was shameful and embarrassing as a nation to see what has been a platform for stability in the world, the U.S. Government, become so exposed so quickly. 

While the riot lasted only a short time, it is enough to ask abiding questions about our democracy, our values and the very fabric of our country.  At one point, I posted about how embarrassed I was, saying “we are better than this,” and I was surprised by the pushback I received questioning whether America, and people in general, are better than being a mob. Critics quickly pointed out that one can draw a “straight line from the Compromise of 1877, (ending the reconstruction era) to the riot.” Others took a more existential view, sending memes and questioning whether or not people are capable of anything like progress. Curiously, many of the interlocutors of my post are some of the most progressive people I know. 

This bewildering moment in history is a reckoning. There is no question of that, but what is it a reckoning of, exactly?  Is it political, social or communal?  It’s hard to say in the ever nebulous haze of the present tense, but to me the question all of us must deal with is deeper.  It is an inner question. It is a spiritual question:

Who are we really?  Who are we when we are looked upon?  Who are we when no one is looking? Is there more the human spirit than vicious animus, or are we made of more sacred stuff?

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.  

If there is anything that runs through our tradition as Jews, it’s that progress is possible.  Tomorrow does not have to look like yesterday. Liberation is possible. Goodness is sovereign, even if clouded or eclipsed by particular moments of chaos.  And each of us carries God’s trademark – the very imaginative capacity to create a world that is better than the one we see. 

There is something more than our biological selves that extends through time. We are more than a neurological dance party, only chasing to satiate our desires, and fulfill what we think of as our needs. 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. They lead us in a direction that says that we can imagine realities that do not exist and bring those realities into existence. This is what it means to feel created by a Creator. God’s greatest gift to each of us, is to give us the imagination to hope that goodness and peace are possible.  One of God’s very names is Peace, (Shabbat 10b)

There is more to us than our physical strength or weakness, power is not the theme of being, but goodness. (Zecharia 4:6).  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, people, or even 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.”  

In this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, we find a world of static chaos, where everyday, for hundreds of years, looks like every other. There was no rest, no liberation, no change, just the building of bricks and suffering of oppression.  This vision, a world created by Pharaoh, believes that all relationships can be reduced to power dynamics. Either you are weak or strong, the oppressor or the oppressed. Into this world is born Moses, a slave from a non-name family, cast into the river and raised a prince only to flee into exile. In the third chapter, Moses meets God for the first time in the forming of a burning bush. As he is standing in intimacy with the Divine, 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, asked the same questions we ask today. 

“Who am I”  and “Who are You?”

Moses, perhaps more than any other character in the Torah, is torn by his competing identities. He has the privilege of a prince and he carries the oppression of a slave. He is an Egyptian. He is a Jew. He is a foreigner. He is a native. He is capable of murder and violence. He is capable of incredible love. It is no surprise that in all the complexity of his identity, Moses feels confused and even unworthy to carry out the task of liberation that God has asked of him. Like many of us, Moses’s sense of self has become muddled.  And just like Moses, our identities –  our varying capacities for viciousness and compassion – comingle with our sense of self-worth.  It becomes easy to slink back into the shambling mound of our baser instincts. The rabbis expand Moses’ question to more mirror our own 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, and the ambiguity 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?” “Why should I try, if this is all we are?”

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 are is that we can live for a future that we cannot see yet, but can only imagine.  We were created by the Creator, dreamed of by the Dreamer, so that we can be a dream, we can inspire, we can overcome, and we can redeem.   Our heart-center is not found in our cells or organs. It is our divine capacity to imagine a world, to repent for our misgivings, to repair the breach, to forgive trespass, and to liberate the soul. It is the life we lead towards greatness. God’s name in Exodus is ours and ours is God’s. We will be what we will ourselves to be.  

At this moment in history, we cannot answer the question “Who am I” with only the smallest, most narrow of answers. We are better than our darkest proclivities, we are never the worst decisions we’ve made.  We are capable of so much more. If we make the turn towards the future, if we choose to see the light, if we look into God’s mirror, we can grow, we can change, we can speak with kings, we can claim our place. When we extend ourselves beyond our limits and partner with what is holy, we can tell the most important story of all – the story of goodness. 

Shabbat Shalom

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