Thursday, January 31, 2013

I Myself Wrote and Delivered: The Hidden Poem in the Ten Commandments

This installment of “Text and the City” will most probably fail. It is an exploration in three languages spanning texts from three millennia. The first (Hebrew) word in the Bible’s most famous text is unpacked into a Talmudic (Aramaic) acronym and is interpreted by a 19th Century East European commentary. Can we discuss this Hebrew-Aramaic pun in English without losing the elegance and simplicity of the text? Probably not, but let’s try anyway…
אנכי - I am the Lord your God who redeemed you from Egypt…” – The famous opening of the Ten Commandments, broadcast in this week’s Parasha, Yitro. Generations have debated if this is a prescriptive or descriptive statement: a preamble to the constitution or a commandment to believe in the God of the Exodus. But the literarily inclined will ask: Why open with the “I”? God’s first word spoken to the Israelites at Sinai has been powerfully branded by Ten Commandments sculptures across the world (some claim this is a specifically American phenomenon), but what is its meaning?

Rabbi Yohanan said: How do we know the Torah contains hidden acronyms?
For it says: “I am the Lord your God” - “אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ
 אָנֹכִי - A’NoKI stands for Ana Nafshi Ktivat Yahavit, I My-self Wrote and Delivered.
Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 105a
אמר רבי יוחנן:... מניין ללשון נוטריקון מן התורה?
שנאמר  "אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ " – אנא נפשי כתיבת יהבית
תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף קה.

In the hands of Rabbi Yohanan the opening word of the Tan Commandments is discovered to contain a hidden Aramaic acronym, which becomes the Talmud’s shortest poem:
אָנֹכִי - אנא נפשי כתיבת יהבית
Anokhi - Ana Nafshi Ktivat Yahavit
I My-self Wrote and Delivered
In Rabbi Yohanan’s midrashic world, if you open up the words of the text, you’ll hear the ars-poetic voice of the author. The author of the Torah is offering here a most personal preface: These words you are about to hear, this entire book perhaps, - “I Myself Wrote and Delivered” it.
What does this poem mean? In the early 20th century, in his commentary Torah Temima, Rabbi Baruch Epstein, offers the following  interpretation:
“I My-self Wrote and Delivered” - it as the popular wisdom goes that one knows the personality of a person, or the value and depth of their wisdom, from their writings.
The poem claims that the very essence of the Holy Blessed One – the will, dignity, magnitude and humility – can be observed and understood from the Torah. And this is the meaning of “I my-self” – my deepest self, my essence – “has been written and Delivered” - I have ensconced my deepest self in this text, allowing a pathway to know and perceive Me through my writings, through my Torah.
"אנא נפשי כתיבת יהבית" – יש לומר על דרך לשון בני אדם שאומרים שמכירים תכונת איש פלוני או מדת וערך חכמתו מתוך כתביו וספריו, ואמר בזה, דמהות הקב"ה כביכול דהיינו רצונו וכבודו וגדולתו וענותנותו נראים ונכרים מתורתו... וזהו עניין אנא נפשי – ר"ל תכונת נפשי, כתיבת יהבית – נתתי לדעת ולהכיר מתוך כתבי, דהיינו מתורתי. )תורה תמימה על שמות כ:א(

“My deepest self – I have written and delivered” – here is an image of God painstakingly fashioning his deepest self into a text, pouring his “self” into his writings, seeking (desperately?) to be known, to be perceived, by us – the addressee of this package. The God who “delivered from Egypt” is now being delivered by his readers.
“My deepest self – I have written and delivered” – and it is accessible every day of the year, through the study of Torah. In the hands of the Torah Temima, heir to the Lithuanian tradition of intellectual Torah scholarship, the endeavor of learning Torah becomes an experience of first hand revelation. As the midrash claims: “The voice goes forth from Sinai every day” – and the place to encounter it is in the study of God’s writings. How does one evoke this experience from the text? Perhaps it involves the magic of Hevruta – the dialogic experience of Self-Text-Other. Perhaps it is encountered when creating hiddushim – intellectual novelties which evoke Divine sparks of creativity. For some it is in only possible in the constancy of a daily communion with the text, for others in the mystical mumbling of mantric words. For me it is found in the fire of a havurah mining a text together in a midrashic jam session of ideas.
Rabbi Yohanan’s acronym is not just about how to read Torah, it also suggests a powerful model for creative action. If we are to “walk in the paths of God”, performing “imitatio Dei” – then the booming voice of אנכי is a call to human beings to follow suit in performing “my deepest self – I have written and delivered”. Not just in text and writing, but in any endeavor אנכי commands us to embed our deepest self and then deliver it, up close and personal, to those who can receive. Whether in the building of institutions, the creation of change, the sharing of an ethic, the raising of children. We are commanded to write our deepest self into our endeavors. And it is our work to mine other endeavors – from God’s text to fellow human’s endeavors – for their deepest selves, allowing them too to be known in the world. Just as God’s אנכי could not have been discovered without the work of Rabbi Yohanan or the Torah Temima, so it is our collaborative endeavor to mine the texts of our inheritance and of our peers for the deeper selves that are peering from between the words.
And all this, tightly packed into one word: אָנֹכִי - אנא נפשי כתיבת יהבית. Anokhi - I My-self Wrote and Delivered
Shabbat Shalom,

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