Who Do You Think You Are?

Noa Kushner / May 13, 2016

There is a really famous story, maybe you heard it, about a man named Reb Zusya. Zusya was crying on his death bed. All his students were gathered around and they were trying to comfort him, asking him what was wrong.

“Are you worried,” asked the first one, that when you die God will ask you,’Reb Zusya, why weren’t you like Abraham Aveinu / our father?’

“No.” said Zusya, but he kept on crying.

“Well, are you worried,” asked the second, that God will ask you, ‘Why weren’t you like Moshe Rabbeinu?’

“No,” said R. Zusya, the tears rolling down his cheeks.

“What is it?” asked the third student, “Why are you crying?” R. Zusya looked at them.

“I’m worried that God will ask me, “Reb Zusya, why weren’t you Reb Zusya?”

Of course, in our early days in rabbinic school, call it rabbi humor, we used to amend the story and say on our death beds we would cry that we were not even like Reb Zusya.

It is not so easy to be who we are, especially when “who we are” is a moving target.

Marcia Falk (she lives here in the East Bay) is an amazing liturgist. Over thirteen years, she rewrote the siddur / prayerbook. It is the real deal, she didn’t even just rewrite the English, she rewrote the Hebrew using metaphors and illusions from Torah -- she wanted prayers that reflected a divinity that is immediate and everywhere, and not necessarily learning so hard on the king / warrior / hierarchical images, and I can tell you there is some gorgeous stuff in the book.

I’m bringing it up b/c she re-wrote the shabbat blessing for children. Traditionally we say (for boys), May you be like Ephraim and Menasheh, Joseph’s sons, possibly because (as I heard from journalist Peter Beinart) these are the only sons in Torah to actually get along, so it surely a blessing worth knowing.

But in her version of the blessing, Falk changes it to:

Heyeyh asher t’hiyeh / May you be who you are

V’hayeh baruch ba-asher tih’yeh and be blessed in all that you are.

This is a beautiful blessing! I can’t help but think poor Zusya might have benefitted from it. Not to mention us.

But I still wonder respectfully about the blessing of being only who we are now. I worry that if we cling too tightly to who we are now nothing new can start to ferment in us. What about who we might be? Doesn’t that deserve some air time too?

This all reminds me (and I am sure Falk has this in mind) of Moshe and God at the burning bush.

Let me set this up for you. In case you were drunk during seder, Israel has been enslaved for generations and we cried out under the weight of our burdens. God hears our cry and finally wants to act. So God catches a man, Moshe’s attention with a bush that is on fire but does not burn to the ground. There God makes a big pronouncement. God says, “I have heard the cries and I will free Israel, and you Moshe, you standing here at this fire, you will help me do it.” It is a big speech and I imagine God practicing it many times in front of the mirror.

Moshe’s first reaction is to turn the task down, to say he is not the one, for Moshe does not trust himself. “Who am I?” he asks. “Who am I to do this?” And in fact, Moshe spends the next many verses coming up with multiple reasons and the insurmountable barriers, he articulates all kinds of resistance and explains to God why he is not the one for this job. (He is a bad speaker, the Israelites won’t listen, etc.)

Now God has a difficult challenge in this moment. God must teach Moshe, who, make no mistake, God needs, God cannot free Israel without Moshe -- God needs to teach Moshe that he is enough right now to be a key part of making what needs to happen, happen, and God must show Moshe the promise of who he might eventually grow to be. Both.

How does God do it? Well, when Moshe tells God that if he is going to go to the Israelites he is going to need some kind of proof, some kind of name from God, the equivalent of a divine card, in response, God gives Moshe the best name ever, because it is a teaching embedded in a name:

Ehyeh asher ehyeh.  Ehyeh asher ehyeh which can be understood as, “I am what I am” / but equally can mean, “I will be what I will be.”

What a crazy name! What kind of a name is this?

It cannot be just a name, it must be a teaching.

Because God needs to model for Moshe how to be whole and ready now without giving up on what might be in the future.

Right? Because, if God were just to say, “I am who I am,” as in, “everything you need to know is right here,” things are looking fairly bleak. That is, there is little to no indication at the burning bush that God, who, let’s face it, has been completely out of the picture for generations and generations of slavery, is ready for a full-on, prime-time come back. Not to mention there is zero indication that Moshe, who is basically a fugitive shepherd (not looking great on the resume) has any interpersonal skills at all, let alone any kind of leadership capacity.

However, if God were only to talk about the future, if God were only to say, “I will be what I will be,” Moshe might not see what is profound about a God that hears the cries now -- even if, especially when redemption is still out of reach. And Moshe might not be able to find the blessing in the person he is right now at this fiery, confusing moment. You see, Moshe doesn’t just need to know he’ll be great one day, he also needs to know he already is someone who turns aside and hears the voice of God when no one else will dare to listen or even acknowledge the value of doing such a thing. Moses needs to know that he is, as we are, someone who is made in the image of God, just as he is, no matter what happens or does not happen in the future.

“Don’t you get it?” God says to Moshe when Moshe complains he is not enough, he is heavy of speech, can’t get the words right, will never make a good spokesman, “Don’t you get it?” God says, “I made you. I made eyes. I made mouths. You got this. Whatever you have right here, right now, it is more than enough. I should know, I wrote the instruction book on you. You are who you are, Moshe just as I am who I am right now and it is good. It is good enough as it is.”

R. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes about this. He says, …[Being made in the image of God] does not refer to… “the best in man,” “the divine spark,” “the eternal spirit,” or “the immortal element” in people. It is the whole person and every person who was made in the image and likeness of God. It is both body and soul, sage and fool, saint and sinner, people in their joy and in their grief, in her righteousness and wickedness. The image is not in a person; it is that person.

Indeed, (he writes) Jewish piety may be expressed in the form of a supreme imperative: Treat yourself as an image of God. (Heschel, Insecurity of Freedom, pp.152,156).

It is as if God says to Moshe, “You need a name, you want proof to take back to the Israelites? You want a card? Moshe, you are my card.”

God says: “Just as I cannot do this without them, without Israel, I cannot do this without you. There will be no freedom if you do not play along.”

In fact, Nachmanides wrote (and I am grateful to my teacher Avivah Zornberg who pointed this out to me this week): This name of God / Ehyeh asher Ehyeh should be translated not as, “I will be what I will be” but as, I will be with who I will be.”

He says, “What is the meaning of Ehyeh asher Ehyeh –… “As you are with me, so I am with you. If they open their hands to give charity, so I shall open my hands…’” (Deut. 28:12) (Zornberg trans., p. 75, Nachmanides 3:13).

God is saying: “Moshe, you are not my right hand man, you are my right hand. If you go to help, I go. If you stay here, I stay too. I am what I am and I will be with who I will be, wherever you allow me to go.”

This leads us, at last, to this week’s Torah, parashat Kedoshim / holiness.

Kedoshim is about how to be holy. Dozens and dozens of laws, detail, and many specifics about how to live. As R. Roly Matalon teaches, Kedoshim is the de-trivialization of the rituals of the every day The insignificant becomes central. Every act carries within it the possibility of blessing. (B’nai Jeshurun dvar torah, 2015). So if we were tempted to think that what we put in our mouths is of no consequence to our spiritual lives or who we sleep with or what we give or how we run our businesses or the way we work for someone or how we treat an older person or an immigrant or our parents or children or how we count our days or harvest our trees, have I got a parasha for you. If holiness is a bridge, Kedoshim teaches us about the cables and bolts.

And the way Torah introduces all these laws is by saying, Kedoshim tihiyu ki kadosh Adonai. / You will be holy because I am holy. Hear it? (eheyeh, tihiyu, it is the same verb).

I will be what I will be

You will be holy because I am holy

It is not only the verb “to be,” l’hiyot, that links the two phrases, it is the critical principle that underlies both verses: We are reflections, parts, images of God. At the burning bush, this means, like God, like Moshe, we are blessed in both who we are and who we will be, and here in Kedoshim it means that God’s holiness by definition is already ours, it extends to us. And the laws of kedoshim then teach us the many ways we can move towards that holiness and cultivate it.

Because, finally, returning to Moshe at the burning bush, even though he was already holy, he was still was called to do something – remember the whole encounter was to inspire, provoke, encourage him to help, to impress God’s dependence on him – remember the moment at the burning bush is not the end but the beginning of the story --

So too, our verse Kedoshim tihiyu / You are holy, you will be holy b/c I am holy, is also meant to prompt, encourage, invite, provoke and demand. Like Moses, we don’t get a choice. We’re holy. Like Moses, who we are will evolve. Like Moses, we have everything we need to begin. Like Moses, we are all walking around, mostly not having a clue, mostly thinking we are the last ones on earth God should count on. But like Moses, God’s plan is contingent on our participation. So this is my blessing for us all, that we should know we are being called and what that means, and Bluma, this is my blessing for you: may you be who you are and may you be blessed in all that you are and may you be who you will become, because God knows, we need you.