I AM…ROSH HASHANA
Drasha by Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, Rosh Hashana 5777, translated by Robert Ley
Read this article in French – Lisez cet article en français
The famous Israeli author Amos Oz wrote a remarkable sentence in his book “Jews and Words”. He said: “We Jews are notoriously unable to agree about anything that begins with the words ‘we Jews’”
This sentence, though full of humour, expresses a profound truth about Jewish identity: it cannot be defined either by a unified practice or by shared beliefs. We Jews are not comfortable with the first person plural. We don’t like to say “we” except when we enter that season of the Jewish calendar in which we find ourselves today.
At the heart of the Tishri services we say again and again: Ashmanou, Bagadnou, Gazalnou (« We have sinned, we have betrayed, we have usurped”). While beating our breast, we confess the sins we have committed in alphabetical order: Al het sheh’atanou lefanecha, (« These are the sins we have committed before you, Eternal”), listing them from A to Z, trying to forget none and expressing ourselves in the plural.
Of course, none of us could have committed all the sins enumerate nor carry responsibility for all these mistakes. But at this time of the year we act as if we are one, or rather we are ready for once to assume a collective responsibility, answering for the errors of others by admitting a sort of shared guilt.
This confession in the plural, is a singular manner for us to recognise our failings. The philosopher Jacques Derrida taught with good reason that any use of the plural “we” by a single person amounts to a sort of misuse of language. He wrote that “it’s always “me” who says “we”, it’s always an “I” who speaks of “us” as if the absent other were dead or incompetent”. Hence, to say “we” often means usurping a right and speaking for the absent or for others without their agreement. We should really say “I” and speak just for ourselves: “I am” and never “we are”.
I am not « only » what I am
« Je suis » (“I am”). That’s what we have been saying together for nearly two years on many occasions, after the attacks at Charlie Hebdo and Hypercasher, after the demonstration on 11 January, we repeated it over and over like a slogan that finished by losing its meaning or the clarity of our intentions: « Je suis Charlie, je suis juif, je suis musulman, je suis Tel-Aviv, je suis all those that terror has struck…. ». Each time we say « je suis », we say that our worlds are not hermetically sealed one from the other; this is the definition of empathy or to put it differently “I am not “only” what I am because what others live profoundly affects what I am.”
That is why I decided this evening to speak of identity, or more specifically to reflect with you on what could be called the Jewish wisdom of « je suis ». Jewish Tradition has a strange way of discussing identity and in particular for saying “je suis ». In fact, it does not know how.
First, because in Hebrew it is impossible to conjugate the verb « to be » in present tense. In Hebrew, you may “have been” or you “may be becoming”, but you cannot simply “be”. Second, because to say “I” in Hebrew is a complex exercise. You must choose between two terms, two different ways of saying “I”: “Ani” the first person singular and “Anochi” a slightly different and more complex form of “Ani” which is frequently used in the Torah.
For example, at the moment of the Revelation on Mount Sinai, God speaks to the Hebrews and announces the first of the Ten Commandments in the following terms: Anochi Hashem Elohecha asher hotzetih’a meeretz Mitzrayim (« I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt»). The Divine speaks of Himself in those terms, leading certain commentators to regard « Anochi » as a higher, more spiritual form of the simple « Ani». But things are more complicated than that. Numerous figures in the Torah, not only God, use the term « Anochi» rather than « Ani» when speaking of themselves.
The Book of Genesis recounts a famous episode in the life of Rebecca, Isaac’s wife. Rebecca is sterile. Isaac prays for her to be able to give birth and lo and behold she falls pregnant. But the pregnancy is difficult, as the text puts it: Vayitrotzetzou habanim bekirba (« Her twin sons struggled with each other within her»). Jacob and Esaü wrestle with each other in utero, in Rebecca’s womb. In a state of emotional or psychological distress, Rebecca turns to God and says: Im ken lama ze Anochi? (« If it be so, why is Anochi ? »). “What’s the purpose of Anochi? » she asks.
The verse suggests that « Anochi» is an «I» that is experiencing an internal struggle, a consciousness that is ambivalent, torn, fissured. Rebecca is the archetypal figure in the Bible who personifies a complex, conflicted identity. She is not only pregnant, thus carrying otherness and unfinishedness, but doubly torn by this difficult pregnancy because she is doubly “other”, impregnated by a conflict. I suggest, therefore, that « Anochi» is a way of saying « I» while being aware of a discrepancy, of something itself incomplete or not in harmony with oneself.
This is indeed confirmed by the rest of the story. Rebecca gives birth to two sons, Jacob and Esau, who are different in every respect. But later, when the time arrives for each of them to receive a blessing from their father Isaac who is old and blind, Jacob disguises himself to usurp the benediction destined for his brother. The scene is related to us in Genesis chapter 27, verse 19:
Vayavo el aviv vayomer avi Jacob comes to his father and says « Father!»
Vayomer Hineni Isaac replies: « I am here » and adds:
Mi ata beni ? « Who are you my son? »
Vayomer Yaakov el aviv Jacob says to his father
Anochi Esav Bechorekha « Anochi, I am Esaü your firstborn. »
Jacob is a man who clearly lives with an internal conflict. His voice is that of a troubled conscience. At that moment, he is himself but not only himself. In the same chapter, however, a few verses later, the same scene is related to us. This time, the true Esau approaches his father:
Vayomer lo Itschak aviv « Mi ata ? » Isaac asks him: « Who are you? »
Vayomer Ani binecha bechorekha Esav Esaü replies : « Ani, I am your firstborn son. »
This time, it is « Ani» who speaks — complete, unquestioning, whole and serene.
What does this opposition between « Ani» and « Anochi» teach us? It suggests that in Hebraic thinking there are two ways of saying « I » : an identity that is full, complete and without flaws… or, alternatively, an identity that accepts flaws and fractures, a self that it not entirely self or that is not only self. That is exactly how « Anochi» is written. (« אנכי »). It is an « Ani» : Alef, Noun, Youd to which an extra letter has been added — a little Kaf — that means in Hebrew « almost like», «not altogether ». « Anochi» is written in Hebrew « Ke-Ani » or literally: « almost me, but not altogether me ». It is the «I » that contains flaws and is thus not one, it’s almost an « I» in the plural, an « I» that means « we».
Say « I will be » rather than « I am »
This is the « I » we need to explore and draw out new meanings in this season of repentence, in these days when we repeat again and again, like Abraham, Anochi Afat Veefer (« I am but dust and ashes»). Again and again we say « I am broken, shatterered, reduced to pieces».
In me there is an incompleteness, a flaw that leaves me literally broken down.
And it is because this flaw exists that I can stand before God and imagine changing, and to speak of the future, to say “I will be” rather than “I am”.
At Rosh Hashana, more than at any other time in the year, we Jews know that we are flawed and imperfect. But we also know that this imperfection is a necessary condition of our repair and of our future. And nothing tells the story of this essential deconstruction than the sound of the Shofar. At Rosh Hashana, four sounds ring out in the same order, one after the other: Tekia, Shevarim, Teroua and Tekia Guedola.
Here is what they say of us in a breath: Tekia is a stable, imperturbable sound. It gives way to Shevarim, a broken sound that soon explodes into pieces at Teroua, like tiny pieces of glass, like the awareness of an extreme break-down.….and then only can ring out the Tekia Guedola (a sound that is reconstructed, repaired and solid).
Ultimately, to speak of oneself in the plural is almost like listening to the sounds of the Shofar. It means to remember on this day that one cannot rebuild or change oneself except by listening to one’s weaknesses and internal conflicts, and by hearing the call of an « Anochi» that says: “I have not finished expressing who I am”. And we Jews, by our individual and collective history, we know this well.
Shana Tova – שנה טובה
 Amos Oz, Fania Oz-Salzberger, Yale University Press, 2012.