I Am is God | Parashat Va’era

Rabbi Rami Shapiro | One River Foundation

The opening verses of our parasha reveals the true nature of God; a revelation that invites us to grow out of the supernatural dualism so many of us liberal Jews reject and to grow into the deep spiritual awakening for which so many of us yearn.

The phrase we will explore here is Ani Y-H-V-H usually translated as “I am HaShem” the unpronounceable Name of God. The problem with this rendering is that it implies that Y-H-V-H is the Name of Ani the way “I am Rami” implies that “Rami” the name of the “I” speaking. What is true in the latter case is not true in the former. Y-H-V-H is not a name, not a proper noun, but a verb, a variation of the Hebrew verb “to be”. Since Hebrew has no present tense there is no room for the English “am” in Ani Y-H-V-H. While awkward to the ear, what Torah is actually saying is “I happening”. God is the singular, nondual I’ing happening as all reality.

So accustomed are we to imagining a God “out there” separate from the universe that the simplicity and clarity of Ani Y-H-V-H escapes us. We can’t hear what Torah is saying because we have not been exposed to teachings that allow us to hear it. So, let us sample three such teachings here:

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570):

God is found in all things and all things are found in God…Everything is in God, and God is in everything and beyond everything, and there is nothing other than God. (Eilima Rabati, fol.25a. Lvov, 1881)

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Ladi (1745-1812), the founder of ChaBaD Hasidism:

“Everything is God who makes everything be, and in truth the world of seemingly separate entities is entirely annulled. (Likkitei Torah, Shir ha Shirim. Kehot Publication Society. Brooklyn, Ny., 1979, fol.41a)

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), the last of the ChaBaD rebbes:

The absolute reality of God, while extending beyond the conceptual borders of “existence,” also fills the entire expanse of existence as we know it. There is no space possible for any other existences or realities we may identify—the objects in our physical universe, the metaphysical truths we contemplate, our very selves…do not exist in their own reality; they exist only as an extension of divine energy…. (Toward a Meaningful Life, Simon Jacobson, ed. William Morrow & Company. New York: 1995, p. 215)

Simply put: the universe—everything we are, known and imagine—is the happening of Y-H-V-H. When we perceive the true nature of reality we understand it as Y-H-V-H. When Y-H-V-H perceives the true nature of reality, Y-H-V-H understands it as Ani, “I”. Think of it this way: If you were to observe me typing this drash, you might say, “Rami is typing this drash.” If I were to observe me typing this drash, I would say, “I am typing this drash.” Both observations are true, but the second is the truer of the two: reality is the I’ing of God.

This is not the first time Torah reveals this to us. When Moses inquires after God’s name at the Burning Bush, God’s initial response isn’t Y-H-V-H but Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, not the conventional “I am what I am becoming”, but “I’ing forever I’ing” (Shemot 3:14). God is the dynamic and infinitely manifesting I’ing of all reality. Why does this matter? Because if God is Ani and Ani is all there is, then you too are Ani, you too are God!

You are God the way a wave is the ocean that waves it. While the wave is not all of the ocean, the ocean is all of the wave. True, every wave has its unique qualities, but these are nothing other than the myriad qualities of the ocean. Similarly, to say all things are Ani is not to say all things are the same only that all things are a manifesting of the infinite and infinitely creative Ehyeh. Indeed, as the 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote, every manifesting of Ehyeh/Ani is unique:

Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique [but not separate, Rami]… Every single person is a new thing in the world, and is called upon to fulfill his or her particularity in this word… Every person’s foremost task is the actualization of his or her unique, unprecedented and never recurring potentialities, and not the repetition of something that another, be it even the greatest, has already achieved. (Martin Buber, The Way of Man According to Hasidism. London: Vincent Stuart LTD, 1963, p.16, adapted)

Realizing Ani as the Singular I of each and every self, takes you out from Mitzrayim (Shemot 6:6), the narrow places (mi tzar-im) of selfishness, rescues you from the worship of self, redeems you from living a life of imitation and for a life of actualization. Living the actualized life—a life rooted in the realization that all reality is a happening of Y-H-V-H, you will find yourself in the land promised to Abraham, the land in which you are to be “a blessing to all the families of the earth,” (Bereshit 12:3). In short, realizing Ani as the One and Only frees you to be a blessing to each and every.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).