The story of Exodus begins with God’s noticing the suffering of the Children of Israel. God takes the suffering to heart and is moved to relieve it. God calls Moses — a fugitive hiding out in the desert — but Moses resists the impossible task. He says to God, “Who am I to undertake such a thing? Who would I say sent me? And who are you, asking such a thing of me?”
And God answers, in what is perhaps the most famous phrase in all of Torah, Ehyeh asher ehyeh.
These three Hebrew words are translated variously into English, “I am that I am” or “I will be what I will be.” Martin Buber translates the phrase as “I-will-be-there.” Some insist on leaving the words untranslated, acknowledging that they are mysterious in the original, not subject to understanding.
And yet these strange words activate what we call Judaism — the involvement of God with the Jewish people in the world.
So, what can we make of Ehyeh asher ehyeh?
First, God isn’t anything. God resists meaning and knowledge. Idolatry — believing one can somehow pin God down — is the Torah’s biggest sin.
The word “ehyeh” is a form of the Hebrew verb “to be.” It is in the first person and its tense is indeterminate (“I am or I will be”). In the next sentence of the text, God transposes the verb to the third person, producing the designation for God we are most familiar with: the four-letter word “Yud Heh Vav Heh”: “He is or will be.” (Yes, the Hebrew word is in the masculine.)
So, God has to do with being. But not being as in a state or an object — rather, being as an ungraspable dynamic, as a spilling over of a present into a future. Being as becoming.
Ehyeh asher ehyeh: I am/will be as I am/will be. What is is, what will be will be. Nothing to grab onto in this tautology. Yet it indicates something profound and unnoticed in our living.
As a person who has practiced Zen Buddhism for decades (and is an ordained Zen Buddhist priest), I have noticed this about being alive: In the deep silence at the bottom of the noise of our living there is something going on. It is hard to define or grasp, but the sense that it is there is palpable. Life is not ours; it is an ineffable process, indefinable and never static. Knowing this has helped me to be patient with my life as it shifts and changes.
As I have contemplated the Buddhist teachings on impermanence, I have come to understand their profound implications. If you are alive in a present moment you will be alive in a future moment. In other words, if you are, you will become. As soon as you are alive in a present moment without a future moment embedded in that present moment — as soon as there is being without becoming — you are dead. In other words, any present moment of ongoingliving presses forward into a future. Life can’t stay still. Life can’t be pinned down.
This also means that our lives are lived in history and that God is necessary to that history. Being alive means going forward into the next moment together with all that is, and Torah understands that going forward as God. I believe that this is what Ehyeh asher ehyeh points to: that God is profoundly present within the process of time itself, as time rolls on. This is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s deepest and most characteristic teaching, outlined in his book The Sabbath.
The context of these three words is important. God is saying them to Moses at a moment when the people are enslaved, suffering in a kind of emotional twilight. God is awakened by compassion for the Children of Israel. Compassion awakens us to time and life.
For me this basic Jewish teaching speaks to our present moment of political, social, and ecological crisis. It seems sensible to imagine that we can predict the future, and that the future is dark. But Ehyeh asher ehyeh tells us that time is inherently sacred, so hope is always possible. This teaching has sustained the Jewish people for a long time. For me Ehyeh asher ehyeh implies that God isn’t a Supreme Being, somehow above it all.
God is within the being-aliveness we share. And yet God is more than our ordinary sense of aliveness. God is an aspect of aliveness that is unknown and inaccessible to us. And yet we sense it and yearn for it. I’ve felt this yearning all my life, which is probably why I have devoted myself full-time not only to spiritual practice but also to poetry. Somehow, through these activities my yearning can be met and expressed, however imperfectly. But I do not think I am so unusual. This yearning is human. We all feel it, however much we may deny or not notice.
Over the years, my Zen meditation practice has plunged my heart into a depth of silence in which I have had the sense that Ehyeh asher ehyeh speaks to me, not as a weird voice, but through my own thought, feeling, and sense of things — and through my encounters with others. When I come into contact with my inmost longings, fears, and sorrows, I come into sympathy with others whose human hearts are like mine. And when I feel that sympathy, I have a sense of what these strange Hebrew words are pointing to: a way of feeling my living, of going forward into life with confidence and with love, even though I don’t know what will happen.
Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, author, and senior American Zen Buddhist priest and teacher. He is the founder and teacher of the Everyday Zen Foundation and, with the late Rabbi Alan Lew, founded Makor Or: A Center for Jewish Meditation in San Francisco. His latest publication is The World Could Be Otherwise: Imagination and the Bodhisattva Path.