By Rabbi Baruch Epstein
Every teenager has asked himself at some point, “Who am I?” Chassidic thought teaches us to ask an even more fundamental question: Am I?
Can I genuinely exist in a world created by the Infinite? Does G‑d’s omnipresence leave any room for me?
In the Ten Commandments, G‑d declares “Anochi”—“I Am.” I truly am; I preceded Creation and am independent of it. As mere humans, your existence is fleeting. Your “I am” is subject to accomplishment and is all too easily erased like sand castles swept away by the tide.
G‑d continues. He has not simply come to boast of His superiority. He invites us to share in His authentic existence: “Who am I? I am the One who took you out of slavery—in order to entrust you with My mission and grant you substantive existence through heeding My instructions.”
It’s as if G‑d is saying: “Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning: I am. The stars and the planets, the animals and the green trees and even humanity exist only because I am, and to serve My ‘I am.’ If you follow these Ten Commandments, you will join me in ‘I am.’”
So (with apologies to all English teachers), we “am” because G‑d—the genuine “I am”—has enabled us to be. G‑d’s existence is genuine, not fleeting. He is not created. Human existence is granted substance through connecting to—not competing with—G‑d. It may be counterintuitive, but the more compliant I am, the more “I am.”
The essence of conflict is competing assertions of self: I want, I deserve, all derivatives of “I am.” Fearing a loss of one’s “I am” can lead to aggression.
Being in a relationship means putting aside my “I am” for the other’s “I am” and—here is the most difficult part—trusting that the other in turn will care for my “I am.” It means allowing the other to be, and not fearing being diminished thereby.
That’s what happened at Sinai. We accepted this responsibility without reservation. When I am only willing to trust 90%, holding 10% back to ensure I control my “I am,” the result is an equal and opposite reaction; G‑d “withholds” from us. Panicked, we begin to withhold even more, and so it spirals. The “I am” statement asks us for total commitment, implying that G‑d will offer the same to us.
A Chassidic student once asked an elder for a path towards humility. Sensing the sincerity of the question, the rabbi advised him to try an exercise: Remove the word “I” from your vocabulary for a week. Replace “I studied an interesting lesson” with “There is an interesting lesson.”
Every year on Shavuot, G‑d assembles us, reveals Himself to us, beckons to us to partner with Him, to transform the world through caring for His and others’ “I am.” v
Rabbi Baruch Epstein is a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to Illinois and serves as the rabbi of Congregation Bais Menachem.
Courtesy of Chabad.org. Find more Torah articles for the whole family at www.chabad.org/parshah.