From the heart of Jerusalem

You may be what you do, but that’s not all of it


Once, in the midst of a class, I noticed a student’s eyes begin to water. We were having a discussion about identity, and how we tap into who we really are.

In tears, he explained how he had arrived at Isralight in Jerusalem. He had been a concert violinist with enormous potential, until in a tragic freak accident he got his hand caught in a car door. After all the hospital care and operations, his hand was left partially paralyzed, and his career in music was over. And he realized, with panic, that he had no idea who he was any more. Whenever anyone would ask “what do you do?” his response had always been, “I’m a violinist.” But that was no longer true. So who was he? 

If Lebron James stops playing basketball, then who is he? Is what I do really who I am? And if that’s all there is to it, then what happens when I can’t “just do it” anymore?

There is a fascinating exchange in this week’s parshat Toldot, addressing this very issue.

Yitzchak wants to bless his elder son Esav before he dies. Rivkah, his wife, overhears Yitzchak’s plan, tells Yaakov, the younger son, to disguise himself as Esav in order to fool blind old Yitzchak into giving him the blessing instead.

Yaakov, at the urging of his mother, comes to Yitzchak and says “My father,” to which Yitzchak answers, “here I am. Who are you, my son?” Yaakov then responds, “I am Esav, your first born.” (Genesis 27: 18-19)

A blatant lie, issued to attain the blessings. This is Yaakov? This is the father of the Jewish people who is associated with truth?

Rashi is so bothered by Yaakov’s outrageous lie that he tries to soften it, suggesting that Yaakov really meant “I am me (Yaakov), comma, and Esav is your first-born.”

Perhaps Rashi is suggesting that Yaakov’s choice of language is due to his tremendous discomfort with the prospect of lying to his father. The key to this puzzle may be the word anochi (I am) which appears here, though it is found infrequently in the Torah. This is the same word that Cain first uses when responding to G-d after killing Abel — “Hashomer achi Anochi (Am I my brother’s keeper?)” (Genesis 4:9).

And it is the same word G-d uses at the beginning of the Ten Commandments — “Anochi (I am G-d)” (Exodus 20:2).

It is found in our portion not once, but twice. Rivkah, finally pregnant, senses that the twins she is carrying in her womb were kicking to such a degree that something was wrong.

G-d communicates to her that there are two nations in her belly, and they will engage in a struggle of historical proportions, with the younger ultimately the victor. Strangely, this comforts Rivkah. (Would you be comforted by the knowledge that you are carrying two children destined to be at war with each other?)

A fascinating Midrash suggests that every time Rivkah walked by a house of Torah study, Yaakov began to kick, and every time she walked by a house of pagan idolatry, Esav began to kick. Rivkah, not realizing she carried two babies, began to wonder who this baby really was and where this was coming from — “Who am I, that my seed desires all this?” The word anochi reflects the question: “Really, who am I?” Is my future in monotheistic ethics, or am I actually a product of the pagan world I come from?

Perhaps this was Yaakov’s challenge. Yitzchak, in responding to Yaakov, says “hineni,” the same word Abraham uses when faced with G-d’s request to bind Yitzchak, and the same word Moses uses when answering the call to go back down to Egypt as G-d’s messenger, to set the Jewish people free.

Hineni is a word that suggests I know exactly who I am, why I am here, and most importantly, what I have to give to the world. Perhaps Yitzchak is confronting Yaakov: “I know who I am, but do you know who you are?”

Imagine the challenge this story represents for Yaakov. Even assuming that for whatever the reason Yaakov needs to receive the blessing, and that part of G-d’s plan is that he has to learn how to incorporate a little bit of Esav into his life (acquiring the blessing through some form of trickery); Yaakov must, at this point be wondering, “Who am I?”

Am I Yaakov, paragon of truth and virtue, a dweller of tents and role model of ethics; or am I Esav, willing to deceive my own father in order to achieve what is necessary?

In order to entertain the possibility of disguising himself as Esav, Yaakov must be confident that he knows who Yaakov really is. Otherwise, the disguise might end up becoming more of a reality than was intended.

This is the challenge of anochi. If Cain could kill his own brother, then what does that mean about who he really is? And perhaps this is what G-d is saying at the beginning of the Ten Commandments. Before you develop a relationship with Me, says G-d, you have to know who you are. Because the first place to look for G-d is deep inside ourselves.

This is such an important idea. So many people are spending energy looking to “find the right person.” But before I can find the right person, I need to become the person the other person is looking for, I need to find myself. If I don’t know who I am, how can I expect someone to be looking for me?

This is true of every encounter we experience. To develop relationships, I have to know who I am. If love is all about giving, I can’t give something unless I know I have it.

This week’s Torah portion challenges us to decide if we are more than what we do. What we do, in the end, is only a part of who we are.