A Shabbat Talk at Chabad Shul of Potomac, Maryland
Date: December 16, 2017
28 Kislev 5778
Why and How I wrote The Anochi Project.
As you all know by now, I have written a new book on the use of the word Anochi in the Torah. In today’s talk, I would like to explain why I wrote the book, how I wrote the book, and some thoughts based on this week’s Parsha.
To start – why did I write this book?
There are two answers to this question. There is a basic answer and then there is a deeper purpose behind my decision to write the book.
To understand the basic answer, it is helpful to understand the common theme behind two famous quotes. The first quote is from George Mallory, an English mountaineer who participated in the first three British climbs of Mt. Everest in the 1920s. When asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, he uttered the famous three word answer – “Because it’s there.” The second quote is an apocryphal quote from Willie Sutton, the famous criminal, who was asked why he robbed banks and he famously is said to have replied “Because that’s where the money is.”
These two quotes share a common theme that answers why I wrote the book – Sometimes one’s personality encounters an opportunity and the result is inevitable.
In my case, I had been researching and writing on this topic for about 10 years during which time I never really thought about turning the content into a book. But about a year and a half ago, I found another book on Anochi and disagreed with the author’s premise, approach, and conclusion. After reading that book, I decided that I had to write my own book. I did not want that other book to be the last word on this topic given all of my research and thinking. That was my personality.
Literally, the very next day after I resolved to write a book, I received an email from Wellspring Press asking whether I had an unfinished manuscript that I would like to turn into a book. I’m sure it was a mass marketing email; but it presented me with an opportunity. I sent in my manuscript and the result – this book – was inevitable.
What is the deeper purpose behind why I wrote the book? The topic of searching for a connection to G-d and G-d’s Essence interests and excites me as a way to find deeper meaning into who we are and what we are here to do. As I wrote in my book, G-d is hiding but not hidden. G-d wants us all to seek Him out and to find what it is that He wants from us. You might agree with what I wrote or you might disagree. Either way, my book can help you think about and engage in the search for meaning.
Even more than that, my purpose in writing the book is not just to offer my views and personal anecdotes, but also to encourage each of you to do the same. I did not have a Yeshiva background. I did not even attend a Jewish Day School. But there is no better way to learn than to write. To write, you must read. Not just casual reading; but really careful and critical reading that stimulates thought and excites the imagination.
So how did I do this (and how can you do this)? It starts with a genuine curiosity about the text. In my case, I created a document containing all 141 verses in the Torah that used the word Anochi. I then walked through each of the verses asking myself what those verses might mean in addition to their literal meaning.
Next, I found great teachers who could help me locate and understand various texts and commentators. In addition to the books in my home library, there are several on-line resources that are available. All of these resources as well as my own life experiences helped inform me about how to interpret the various verses.
Then there is the writing process itself. Writing is indeed a process. Even writing out the thoughts for this talk was a process that required a fair amount of thinking, writing and re-writing. In fact, the book is dedicated in part to my late father who wrote many medical books. He was fond of saying that there is no such thing as good writing; only good re-writing.
Where do you find the time for this type of a project? That is a fair question. My days start early and end late. So it is not always easy to find enough time to think and to write. But, as my grandfather once told me, time is like a rubber band – it stretches to fit around whatever container you have. So if you want to write, don’t mind the clock; just keep at it. The words and ideas will flow the more you try.
In that same vein, one last quote to explain the impact of writing a book. Sir Edmund Hillary (another mountain climber and not the one who said “Because it’s there”) once explained that “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” My hope and prayer is that reading my book can have a positive influence on your understanding of G-d’s Torah; but I am certain that the process of writing my book has profoundly changed and influenced my perspective.
THEMES IN THIS WEEK’S PARSHA
Before walking through some Anochi lessons from this week’s Parsha, it will help to have a basic understanding of my approach. The book’s overall theme is to find a deeper understanding of G-d’s identity in the Torah and G-d’s relationship to our world. We can then see how we can build a closer connection to G-d and what G-d wants of us.
In considering the relationship between G-d’s revealed presence and our existence in this world, there are two competing and somewhat contradictory forces. On the one hand, G-d wants us to know that He created this world and that His presence is here on an immanent as well as a transcendent level. On the other hand, if G-d were to allow His presence to be completely revealed, creation as we know it would cease to exist. In other words, the Creator wants us to know that He is present, but if He makes His presence so overwhelming, there is no room for the creation.
To reconcile these competing ideas, imagine a painting. There are trees, a stream, some birds, and perhaps some mountains in the background. It is a beautiful creation. Looking at the painting, where can one find the artist’s presence within the painting itself? Said another way, where is the creator within the creation?
The easiest and most direct way to identify the artist is by the artist’s signature, typically placed in the lower corner of the painting. The artist leaves a signature so that all who look closely at the painting can see who created it.
But why does an artist leave a signature? The simple answer is that the artist wants the world to know the artist’s identity. If that is true, though, why does the artist make the signature so inconspicuous? After all, if the artist wanted everyone to know who created the artwork, the artist could have placed his name in big bold letters across the front of the painting. That way, the artist’s presence would be clear and no one would have any doubt about who created the painting.
Had the artist done that, however, no one would have been able to see the painting — it would be hidden by the overwhelming presence of the artist’s name. Instead, the artist wants us to know who it was that created the creation in a way that still allows us to relate to the artwork in a meaningful way. The artist wants to communicate a message through the painting and knows that by having us know who created the artwork (who signed the painting) we will want to learn more about the artist. The more we know about the artist, we eventually reach the point where the artist’s identity is so clear that we can see the creator in the creation without even focusing on the artist’s signature.
My premise is that Anochi is, if you will, G-d’s signature in the Torah (the ultimate work of art). G-d wants us, as participants in His creation, to seek Him out. The more we know about G-d and His attributes, the more we come to appreciate His creation and what He wants from us as part of that creation.
In this week’s Parsha, Mikeitz, we read once again the story of Joseph’s brothers going down to Egypt looking for food. At the time of their descent, the Torah describes them literally as “Achei Yosef”; Joseph’s brothers who went down to buy grain. As Rashi explains, their common purpose at this point was to buy grain and feed their families it was not to reunite with Joseph and form a true united “B’nai Yisrael” or nation of Israel.
Yet at the end of the story (in next week’s Parsha Vayigash), they do reunite with their brother Joseph. Ultimately, they are able to forge a bond that (despite some periodic internecine conflicts over the years) will last through a period of slavery, redemption, revelation, nation-building, dispersion and partial destruction, and eventually to a time of the final redemption with the coming of the Mashiach.
How did they do that? Joseph’s brothers were ready to kill him. Instead, they threw him in a pit, sold him to roaming traders, dipped his coat in blood, and told their father he was dead. This is hardly a story that was destined to result in the re-unification of the brothers and creation of a united people. So how did this re-unification happen?
Of course, G-d as author, director, and producer of the show caused it all to happen. However, on a literal level, there is no specific identification of the divine presence in the story of Joseph and his brothers – the Torah just gives us the facts. But by looking at the text carefully, we can clearly see G-d’s presence behind the scenes.
The story actually began in last week’s Parsha, Vayeshev. Joseph was sent out by his father Jacob to look for his brothers. In the text, Joseph encountered an unnamed man (perhaps an angel) who asked Joseph what he was looking for. In reply Joseph said, אֶת־אַחַי אָנֹכִי מְבַקֵּשׁ; “I am (Anochi is) looking for my brothers.” On one level, it was indeed Joseph who was looking for his brothers. However, a deeper meaning is hinted at by the use of Anochi along with the word Mevakesh. When bakesh בקש (the root of Mevakesh) is used elsewhere in the Torah, it typically has the connotation of seeking out, requesting, or even demanding of the other.
Thus, when Joseph said “אֶת־אַחַי אָנֹכִי מְבַקֵּשׁ”, the Anochi can refer to G-d (through G-d’s Essence) who is demanding something from Joseph’s brothers. Where were they? When were they going to reconcile with Joseph? When would they work toward a united purpose and truly become “B’nai Yisrael” instead of separate individual tribal families?
Moreover, when the challenge comes through the words of Joseph, perhaps it is fair to ask what Joseph was going to do to cause this to happen. Joseph was also seeking out his brothers to request something of them so they could reunite. Only when Joseph could find his brothers (in the sense of doing something to be reconciled and united with them) could “Anochi” truly be said to have found them so they would be able to receive the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.
The next key passage in the growth and development of this band of brothers is the story of Yehuda and Tamar. This story is curious in that it disrupts the flow of the narrative of Joseph being sold into slavery and his brothers’ descent to Egypt to buy food. One reason for the story’s insertion at this point in the narrative is to teach us something of Yehuda’s growth as a leader.
Before the story with Tamar, when the text last mentioned Yehuda, Yehuda was the brother who argued that it was best to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites instead of killing him. That way, Yehuda argued, they could walk away from Joseph with clean hands — it would not be their responsibility if something happened to Joseph after the sale. Moreover, Yehuda stood by idly as Jacob cried out thinking that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast. At that point, Yehuda did not seem to accept any personal responsibility for the situation.
In the story of Yehuda and Tamar, Yehuda was faced with another opportunity to walk away from accepting personal responsibility. To see the divine presence hidden behind the story of Yehuda’s growth, follow how Anochi appeared. When Yehuda promised payment to Tamar, he said that “Anochi” would pick a kid from the flock. At the literal level, Yehuda would select the payment, yet he specifically said “Anochi” would select the kid. He then left Tamar with his signet ring, wrap, and staff as a form of security for the payment.
When Tamar was about to be put to death, she did not call out Yehuda by name as the father of her child. Instead, she pointed to Yehuda’s signet ring, wrap, and staff and said that “Anochi” was pregnant by the one to whom those items belonged. At the literal level, Tamar was saying “I am pregnant.” However, her use of Anochi seems to be calculated to speak directly to Yehuda and no one else. Yehuda said “Anochi” would select a kid from the flock and Tamar said that by the man to whom the selected items belonged, “Anochi” was pregnant. They were the only two people who knew that Yehuda said “Anochi.” Perhaps Tamar’s statement of Anochi to Yehuda caused him to step back and realize that he had to accept personal responsibility for what happened.
On a deeper level of allusion, Tamar’s mention of Anochi was foreshadowing her eventual connection to G-d’s Essence in that Tamar gave birth to Peretz. According to the genealogy in the Book of Ruth, Peretz was the ancestor of King David from whom the Mashiach will descend. It really was Anochi whose hand was behind the scenes.
That brings us to this week’s Parsha where we see the final stage of development and growth as Yehuda stepped up to be a true leader.
Why was Yehuda the one who was entrusted by Jacob to bring Benjamin down to Egypt? Both Reuven and Yehuda approached Jacob to try to save Benjamin. Reuven was not successful but Yehuda was. Why?
Three reasons are suggested by the text. First, Reuven seems to have been speaking to his father “Yaakov” whereas Yehuda appealed to his father as “Yisrael” (see Genesis 43:8). In appealing to Yisrael, Yehuda was speaking to Jacob’s spiritual essence; touching his soul as it were.
Second, consider the difference between Reuven’s expression of confidence in his mission as opposed to Yehuda’s. Reuven explained that he was so sure he would redeem Benjamin that he would bet the lives of two of his sons on his success. Yehuda, by contrast, accepted personal responsibility for his success. On the literal level, he was prepared to offer himself and his life as a guarantee. He was so sure that he would stake his own life on it.
A third key difference was that Yehuda said “אָנֹכִי אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ מִיָּדִי תְּבַקְשֶׁנּוּ אִם־לֹא הֲבִיאֹתִיו אֵלֶיךָ וְהִצַּגְתִּיו לְפָנֶיךָ וְחָטָאתִי לְךָ כָּל־הַיָּמִים” — Anochi would guarantee the success. Read in this context, he was actually saying two separate points — (1) Anochi would guarantee Benjamin’s return and (2) if that did not come to pass, Yehuda promised to be indebted to Jacob his entire life.
Therefore, Yehuda had grown to understand that as a true leader, he must assume personal responsibility. He also articulated his understanding on the deeper level that reached Jacob’s spiritual essence (i.e., the reference to Israel) and connected to his father through the faith in Anochi, G-d’s Essence.
Through these three passages, we see a progression from a place where Anochi was looking for Joseph and his brothers to reunite to where they were, in fact, united and together in Egypt where they could form a nation that was ready to receive G-d’s law.
This search for how and when the brothers and Joseph would reconcile is reflected in an even more subtle way by looking closely at how the text repeatedly refers to “brother” 12 times between each major section of the story. When the brothers went down to Egypt to look for food, they were 10 in number (Joseph was in Egypt and Benjamin was not allowed to go). From this point forward, the story is told in three sections.
In the first section, between the time the brothers went down and the time that Shimon was imprisoned by Joseph (as a guarantor for their returning with Benjamin), the word “brother” in Hebrew (in the various forms of אח) appears 12 times. During this period, the brothers were not at all united. When Joseph threatened to imprison them as spies, Reuven literally appeared to point his finger at his brothers saying (in Genesis 42:22) “I told you so!” Joseph heard their discussion and could not reveal himself at that point. Although the brothers expressed regret for their actions, they were not united.
In the second section, between the time that Shimon was imprisoned until the time that Yehuda stood up to Jacob and said “אָנֹכִי אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ” — “Anochi will be responsible,” the word brother appears another 12 times. Again, the brothers were disputing among themselves and their father. Until Yehuda took charge, there was no clear direction or leadership.
In the very next section, between the time that Yehuda stepped up to lead the brothers to challenge Joseph until the time that Joseph actually revealed himself, the word “brother” in its various forms appears another 12 times. By that time, Yehuda demonstrated true leadership by accepting personal responsibility for the outcome. He was prepared to do what was necessary to save all of his brothers, regardless of the personal cost. When Joseph saw this, he realized that his brothers regretted their past actions toward him and were prepared to have all 12 brothers unite for a common cause. At that point, Joseph found the brothers he was searching for nearly 25 years earlier when he told an unnamed man “Et Achai Anochi Mevakesh.”
This call to unite brothers who are fighting is a universal call to all of us in all generations.
A true story.
Morris and Sidney were brothers who came to America in the 1920s. The two brothers went into the grocery business together for decades. The two brothers married two sisters from another family from the same shtetl. The two families lived in the same house – one family was upstairs and the other was downstairs. Their children grew up like siblings, not cousins.
Over time, one brother became jealous of the other; something caused the relationship to deteriorate until they could not live or work together any more. The families split apart and the two brothers never spoke again for over 25 years.
Almost everyone knows a story just like this one. How many times do we see siblings, other relatives, friends, co-workers and others fighting so much that they cannot even speak to each other? Sometimes siblings sit shiva for a deceased parent at separate homes even though they live in the same general geographic area solely because they just cannot be in the same room with each other. We all are susceptible to being negatively influenced by the acts or words of others, particularly those closest to us. Are our grievances legitimate? Perhaps. But is this the result that G-d wants or expects of us? G-d calls out – Et Achai Anochi Mevakesh – Anochi is demanding something of us and of our brothers and sisters. On this Shabbat where we see how our ancestral brothers overcame their differences to form a united nation, we need to consider what we are doing to respond to that demand in a positive uplifting way that will bring us that much closer to the coming of Mashiach.