These two times ‘I’ may be all the world needs. The first is ‘I am’ and the second is ‘I shall.’ But beyond them waits a third, the terrible sentence of Cain.
The first anochi, ‘I am,’ is the opening word of the Ten Commandments, which we will read next Friday morning on Shavuot, the Festival of the Giving of the Torah. The description of the scene at Sinai moves me greatly, the cloud over the mountain, the rising cry of the shofar, the voice of God from nowhere and everywhere, saying Anochi, ‘I’.
When they heard that ‘I am,’ wrote Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh-Leib of Ger, (1847 – 1905) when they experienced that ‘I am your God’, not just the Children of Israel but every living being felt it was addressed directly to them. More than that, they felt it was them, the voice at the very core of them, the holiness in the essence of all life.
Those simple words ‘I am your God’ say something deeper than the divine equivalent of ‘Look, this is me!’ They are not really words at all, but the translation into human language of a truth at the centre of all existence. They are vitality itself, the very articulation of the sacred energy which flows through all organic beings, giving them form, life, consciousness and the gift of time.
Therefore, the presence of God, – perhaps it’s less daunting to call it the sacred, the special, -can be felt in all things, in our fellow human beings, in our companion creatures on this earth, in the trees, in meadows, in a tiny flowering plant, even an insect.
This is the first, and most definitive, ‘I am,’ the life of all life.
The second anochi, ‘I’, is what Judah says to his father Jacob to persuade him to entrust Benjamin to his care and allow him to go with his brothers back down to Egypt to buy grain and stave off starvation. Anochi e’ervenu, he says, ‘I shall stand surety for him.’ (Bereshit 43:9) Send the boy with me; I’ll look after him.
I hear about that second anochi almost every day, and often witnessed with my own eyes: ‘I’ll commit to that,’ ‘I’ll take care.’ They’re simple words, but what they represent is not so easy, a combination of awareness, kindness, and the readiness to take responsibility.
I saw only part of the film Mo Farah is making about his life. Alongside those who trafficked him to the UK and enslaved him in domestic service were those who heard him, listened and strove to protect and love him. ‘I’ll stand surety for him,’ they said.
We hold innumerable lives in our hands. The great question, the issue which will define the future of humanity, is whether we can say ‘I’ll stand up for you,’ and mean it truly. That ‘you’ may be a child. But it may also be an orphaned or mal-treated animal, a local park, a meadow. I’ve met people who treasure the tiniest creatures, looking after with wonder. What matters is that we are on the side of life, engaged in heart, practical in our care.
These two words, God’s ‘I am’ and our answer ‘I shall’, may be all we need to find our path through life.
But against them, louring, is a third anochi, the ‘Am I?’ of Cain: ‘Hashomer achi anochi? Am I my brother’s keeper?’ He’s the prototype of those treacherous perpetrators who stalk our future with their byline: Why should I care who I hurt or kill?
That’s why it matters absolutely, always to be on the side of life.