Jewish Thought

Who Am I?

An elderly gentleman once came into a doctor’s office for an appointment. He explained to the nurse that he had a luncheon commitment and would therefore appreciate being attended to in a timely manner. The office was busy, but something about the man piqued her interest, and seeing that what he needed was relatively minor, she took him into an examining room in short order.

In the course of her routine questions and the conversation that ensued, it surfaced that the luncheon date was with his wife in a nursing facility, where she had lived since the onset of her dementia. He shared that he went there daily to have lunch with her. “Does she even know who you are?” the nurse asked. “No,” the man answered with tears in his eyes. “But I know who she is, and that’s what matters.”

A related inspiring anecdote is told about my husband’s great-grandmother, the Bubbe Sarah Miriam. In her later years, when she suffered from dementia, Bubbe Sarah Miriam would say, “I don’t know who I am, I don’t know where I am, but I do know Whose I am.” A lifetime of devotion to Hashem could not be wiped out, even by the cruel infirmities of aging and illness. As long as she breathed, her connection to the Master of the World could not be severed.

Similarly, towards the end of my mother-in-law’s life, already stripped of much of her cognitive function, she would still hold forth for hours on G-d’s glory to her caregivers. My mother too, weakened to the point where she rarely spoke, would nonetheless respond with “baruch Hashem” when asked how she was doing. To the very end of her life she answered “Amen” to every brachah that was recited in her presence.

There is no doubt that in order to behave in a manner consistent with an awareness of G-d when one is no longer in control requires a life-long immersion,and an existence dedicated to the values of Torah. It does not happen in a vacuum. It is not a state of mind that we can order at will. It is the product of an internal consciousness that has become an integral part of the person.

In Sefer Melachim (1:3) the pasuk relates that Hashem and Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of all men. Hashem asked Shlomo Hamelech what He might give him as a gift, and Shlomo Hamelech requests “a lev navon,” literally “a discerning heart,” in order to be able to judge the people fairly and with wisdom. Hashem was pleased with this response and He not only fulfilled his request but also gave him the gifts of wealth, longevity and victory over his enemies. 

What is less known, however, is that this encounter took place in a dream state. This is significant because a dream state is more authentic to who a person really is. There’s no such thing as posturing or adjusting one’s reactions for the sake of political correctness or in order to impress. In that sense, what appears in a dream is genuine and real.The real “us” emerges when the superficial layer of consciousness isn’t operative. This altered state can take the form of sleep or, G-d forbid, dementia.

However, this raises a sobering question: “Who am I?” The plot thickens when we consider that our sefarim inform us that two names are conferred upon a person at birth. One comes from a holy source (Hashem and our parents), and the other is given to us by the dark forces of the detractors from kedushah. This is important because a name captures the essence of a person and in a sense becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

David Hamelech is a case in point. The “dark side” named him “Plishti” (Philistine). He did in fact have qualities that had they been channeled inappropriately would have taken him down an unfortunate path. He could have joined forces with a world that is anathema to holiness, drawing on the energy of the name “Plishti.” Instead, he chose to be true to the appellation that Hashem bestowed upon him and thus became the forerunner of Mashiach. 

There is a custom for the bystanders at a burial (after 120 years) to call out to the deceased with a charge to remember his name. The implication is that when we come before the Heavenly tribunal and they ask us our name, we will have hopefully lived in a manner that identifies us with our exalted calling.

It is also customary to find a verse in Torah that begins with the first letter of our name and ends with the final one. We are encouraged to insert that pasuk at the end of Shemoneh Esrei before “Oseh shalom.” The verse serves to connect us to our holy sources and reminds us on a daily basis that we are constantly defining ourselves moment to moment.

The message is that we dare not wait for the end of our lives (may they be long and healthy) to know “Whose we are,” as the Bubbe Sarah Miriam said. It requires a lifelong journey of awareness and focus.

May Hashem help us stay on course towards a realization and integration of our true nature.

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