The "I" Who Spoke at Sinai-- and Nag Hamadi

Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, which comes fifty days after the second day of Passover -- seven weeks of seven days, plus one day -- begins this year (2016) on the evening of Saturday, June 11.

What does it celebrate, what does it teach?

My own sense of its meaning has been deeply transformed by an ancient teaching from the Nag Hammadi library (which has been called a “Gnostic” collection). The story of how I got there is after this essay, where the color changes to maroon..

But first: In Biblical tradition, Shavuot celebrated the spring wheat harvest, as hundreds of thousands of Israelites brought sheaves of newly sprouted wheat and two loaves of leavened bread to the Temple in Jerusalem.

But as the Jewish community became more and more widely dispersed, and then when the Temple was destroyed and the Jewish community shattered by the Roman Empire, the ancient Rabbis realized they could no longer celebrate Shavuot this way. Indeed the food-offering connection with any piece of earth grew weaker.

To replace food and land, the Rabbis sought to make words of prayer, words of Torah, words of reinterpretive midrash into new ways of connecting with God. They sought to create a festival when all Israel in every generation could stand at Sinai to receive the words of Torah and speak new words of Torah, just as all Israel in every generation could use Passover to become again a band of runaway slaves, newborn from Egypt’s Tight and Narrow Space (Mitzrayyim).

So the Rabbis transformed the Torah’s agro-meaning of Shavuot into the festival of Revelation.

Who spoke at Sinai? Anokhi – a heightened form of the usual Hebrew word for “I,”  Ani.  When the Universe calls out to us, the “I” Who calls is Anokhi. Some say it was not only the first word at Sinai, but perhaps embodies in Itself the entire Revelation.

For if the Universe calls out “I” to us, everything else follows:

  • “Don’t waste My Name by forgetting that each breath you take is the ‘pronouncing’ of My Name,”
  • “Set aside time for you and for the Earth to rest and reflect,”
  • “Don’t murder a human or a species,”
  • “Don’t wallow in greed so as to covet,” and all the rest.

I, YHWH, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, Breath of Life and Hurricane of Change, Who brought you forth from the Tight and Narrow Place, the house of slavery….”

While the Rabbis were working out this transformation of Shavuot, an unknown writer in the Semitic language Coptic was giving a different valence to that great Anokhi.  The text, called “The Thunder: Perfect Mind,” was stored away in the Nag Hammadi collection of religious texts written during the first two centuries of the Common Era.  That library -- -- a collection of mostly Christian texts that the early Church refused to name as part of the sacred canon -- was unearthed by moderns only recently

 But “The Thunder” is not Christian, and its whole text is built around Anokhi Whose Divine Voice was/ is Feminine.

Its title, “The Thunder,” did not describe any specific part of  its content –- but the whole text feels like The Thunder that spoke at Sinai. 

Here are excerpts from “The Thunder” (translated by Rev. Hal Taussig and published in his anthology A New New Testament (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 2013). The full text is below.

 I [in Coptic, Anokhi] am the first and the last     

I am what everyone can hear and no one can say

I am the name of the sound and the sound of the name

 I am she who is honored and she who is mocked

I am the whore and the holy woman     

 I am the wife and the virgin

 I am the mother and the daughter

 I am the limbs of my mother     

I am the sterile woman and she has many children

I am she whose wedding is extravagant and I didn’t have a husband

 I am the midwife and she who hasn’t given birth

I am the comfort of labor pains     

I am the bride and the bridegroom

And it is my husband who gave birth to me

I am my father’s mother,

My husband’s sister, and he is my child     

I am the slave-woman of him who served me

I am she, the lord of my child

I am what everyone can hear and no one can say

I am the name of the sound and the sound of the name

The lines of text, as you can see below, continue in an ever more mold-breaking, paradoxical, boundary-crossing way.

Perhaps if at Sinai men were gathered on one side of the mountain and women on the other (as the Torah text hints), this is the “I” Who spoke to us all but was best received in the women’s hearing. Perhaps today we will find Her as holy, as awe-inspiring, as the “I” of the other Sinai text, the one that the men heard and recorded in what we know as Torah. 

Experience those two lines again, as what the “I” of Sinai spoke to us all:

I am what everyone can hear and no one can say

I am the name of the sound and the sound of the name

These lines bring us back to the Anokhi YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the first words the Torah heard at Sinai. 

For if the YHWH is a Breathing,  It would indeed be what everyone can hear and no one can say.

Its letters, if we try to pronounce them, would indeed be the name of the sound and the sound of the name. A Breath.

If we hear Her in the all-night Torah-learning that the mystics bequeathed us for Shavuot, could we learn to think, to feel, to commune, to be silent in a different way?

Could we hear the Shavuot of Harvest and the Shavuot of Sinai as one:

 

“I am the earthy food that goes into your mouth, and I am the airy words that come forth from your mouth.”

Could The Thunder teach us that Earth and Torah are one, The One?

 ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Here is the story of this discovery:

Last year, Rabbis Phyllis Berman, Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, and I were invited by Methodist minister and scholar Hal Taussig to take part along with about 15 Christian scholars and spiritual teachers in a discussion of a number of religious texts written in the first two centuries of the Common Era. Most were clearly Christian, but the early Church had not included them in what became known to Christians as the “New Testament.” Should they have been? Should they, even now?

Rev. Taussig was in fact asking us to VOTE on which of about 20 texts should be included in a book he was editing to be called A New New Testament. We did vote, and the book has now been published, and is causing a considerable stir.

When Rev. Taussig shared with us “The Thunder: Perfect Mind,”  he said this title had been appended much later, and that it had no connection with the content.

 

When I read it, however, I felt and said that its title, “The Thunder,” was precisely about its content – for the whole text felt like The Thunder that spoke at Sinai.  Someone asked whether I meant it was/ is a midrash on Sinai. “No!” I said, “It IS Sinai.”  My passion helped convince the Christians to vote for it, and it is included in the (heretical? transformative?) book of A New New Testament.

After "The Thunder," you will find part of a chapter from a book by Rabbi Phyllis Berman and myself. This, too, bespeaks the great Anokhi, I.

 The Thunder: Perfect Mind

(Translated by Rev. Hal Taussig and others from a text

in Coptic from the Nag Hammadi library,

1st 2 centuries of the Common Era.)

 

 I [in Coptic, Anokh] am the first and the last      

 I am she who is honored and she who is mocked

 I am the whore and the holy woman      

 I am the wife and the virgin

 I am the mother and the daughter

  I am the limbs of my mother      

 I am the sterile woman and she has many children

 I am she whose wedding is extravagant and I didn’t have a husband

 I am the midwife and she who hasn’t given birth

 I am the comfort of labor pains     

I am the bride and the bridegroom

And it is my husband who gave birth to me

I am my father’s mother,

My husband’s sister, and he is my child      

I am the slave-woman of him who served me

I am she, the lord of my child

 

But it is he who gave birth to me at the wrong time

And he is my child born at the right time

And my power is from within him

I am the staff of his youthful power

And he is the baton of my old womanhood

 

Whatever he wants happens to me

I am the silence never found

And the idea infinitely recalled

I am the voice with countless sounds

And the thousand guises of the word      

I am the speaking of my name

 

You who loathe me, why do you love me and loathe the ones who love me?

You who deny me, confess me

You who confess me, deny me

You who speak the truth about me, lie about me

You who lie about me, speak the truth about me

You who know me, ignore me

You who ignore me, know me      

 

I am both awareness and obliviousness

I am humiliation and pride

I am without shame      

I am ashamed      

I am security and I am fear

I am war and peace

 

Why do you despise my fear and curse my pride?

I am she who exists in all fears and in trembling boldness

I am she who is timid      

And I am safe in a comfortable place

I am witless, and I am wise

Why did you hate me with your schemes?

I shall shut my mouth among those whose mouths are shut and then I will show up and speak

 

16 Why then did you hate me, you Greeks?

Because I am a barbarian among barbarians?

 

I am the wisdom of the Greeks and the knowledge of the barbarians

I am the deliberation of both the Greeks and barbarians      

I am he whose image is multiple in Egypt

And she who is without an image among the barbarians

I am she who was hated in every place

And she who was loved in every place

 

I am she whom they call life

And you all called death

I am she whom they call law

And you all called lawlessness      

 

I am she whom you chased and she whom you captured

I am she whom you scattered

And you have gathered me together

I am she before whom you were ashamed

And you have been shameless to me

I am she who does not celebrate festivals

And I am she whose festivals are spectacular

 

I, I am without God      

And I am she whose God is magnificent

I am the one you thought about and you detested me

I am not learned, and they learn from me

I am she whom you detested and yet you think about me

I am he from whom you hid

And you appear to me

 

Whenever you hide yourselves, I myself will appear      

 

Blame the part of me within yourselves

Come toward me, you who know me      

and you who know the parts of me

Assemble the great among the small and earliest creatures

 

Advance toward childhood      

Do not hate it because it is small and insignificant

Don’t reject the small parts of greatness because they are small

   since smallness is recognized from within greatness

 

I am the learning from my search

And the discovery of those seeking me

The command of those who ask about me

And the power of powers      

In my understanding of the angels

Who were sent on my word

And the Gods in God, according to my design?       …

 

I am being

I am she who is nothing

Those who do not participate in my presence, don’t know me

Those who share in my being know me

 

Those who are close to me, did not know me

Those who are far from me, knew me

I am the coming together and the falling apart

I am the enduring and the disintegration

I am down in the dirt and they come up to me

I am judgment and acquittal

 

I myself am without sin, and the root of sin is from within me

I appear to be lust but inside is self-control

I am what anyone can hear but no one can say

I am a mute that does not speak and my words are endless

 

Since what is your inside is your outside

And the one who shapes your outside is he who shaped your inside

And what you see on the outside, you see revealed on the inside

It is your clothing

 

Hear me, audience, and learn from my words, you who know me

I am what everyone can hear and no one can say

I am the name of the sound and the sound of the name      

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

From Freedom Journeys by Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow & Rabbi Phyllis O. Berman (Jewish Lights, 2011; avlbl from The Shalom Center by writing office@theshalomcenter.org

 

At Sinai:

Anokhi,

"I!"

It comes like a drumbeat, again again: Anokhi.

This is my “I,” my own self, but there is no “my,” no possessing, no being possessed.

The “I” is the “I” that I am. I speak it, it rolls from my throat, I affirm it, I. Anokhi.

And the “I” is also the entire people. I speak Anokhi also as one voice of all the people. Again  again  again  again, Anokhi. I.

At every moment — there is only one moment — there is I the person, I the people.

One I.

And, still in the same moment, the entire universe becomes Anokhi, "I."

My “I” is caught up in the “I” of the universe, the “I” of the universe is caught up in my “I.”

This “I” is all there is; there is no "Thou," no "Other," no verb, no predicate. No past, no future, no present, no tense. Only the subject is the sentence, only “I.”

I see the wilderness, I am the wilderness, the shimmering heat waves rising from its surface are my I, the spirals of time and history, the woven tapestries of art and custom, the patterned laws of science: world upon world, infinity upon infinity, all I.

I see myself, part of an unfathomable Whole, not facing it but integrated in it.

For an instant I am infinitesimal, a tiny rhythmic breathing conscious cell in some vast breathing conscious Ultra­human.

For an instant, I am infinite, containing in one enormous self all the worlds of fact and meaning.

These instants are themselves a single instant, infinitely unfolding: they last for just a flashing moment, it stretches out for all eternity.

All time, all space whirls like a Moebius strip through a vast expanse curved in an unspeakable dimension— while it holds but one surface and one edge.

I tremble, topple, fall to ground that disappears beneath while its textures enter every inch of blazing, open skin.

I am the shaking earth, all my skin is quivering, unending one-great-quivering-shudder

Stop stop how can I stop forget how can forget, I need forget, how can forget

I see too deep, I stand too big, I must forget, how to forget?

Our body quivers; I taste the world, the world is tasting me, is touching all my skin, and inside too: inside our mouths, my belly, every opening filled and every limb outreaching to fill whatever is  empty in the world.

Back and forth, I am/ we are All All There Is—Anokhi, "I"—and Everything is all there is, we/ I am part of everything and less than nothing,

 Anokhi I a cell of great Anokhi of the world come conscious.

I stand inside God's skull, behind the face; I look out through God's eyes, my face in Face, I see myself, ourself. Anokhi.

And reeling, stunned, I fall, roll, stumble away from the Mirror in the Mountain, I close all eyes and shriek to see that I can still see Everything.

I close our ears, I hear the Voice still ringing in my bones, I back away and try  to blot it out, forget. To not be "I" or “we” or any one.

And gradually I can become a separate "thou." Gradually I can/ we can/ you can/ they can begin to hear the "I" expand, contract, become —

"I YHWH your God Who brought you out . . . "

I disentangle our selves, distinguish between the voice in their throats and the voice in my ears. Gradually they/ I distinguish me/ us/ themselves from the ground beneath, distinguish the pain in tightly clenched fists from pleasure in their open mouth, the breath within them from the wind around them,

Na’aseh, "We will do  . . . we/ All There Is/ will do," there is no Other.

Nishma, "We will hear  . . . the Other speak to us."

I

I- Thou.

I connect Thou, Thou connect I.

Connect.

An artery channels streams of blood, just I; but now organic unity is gone. “Connect” is necessary.

Gradually: connections and commandments. "You shall keep Shabbos." "You shall not kill."

From organic into what is organized; replace harmonious wholeness with a plan, a patterning. Gradually distinguish what they are doing from what they should be doing.

 Ruefully I linger, trying to remember the Anokhi and trying to forget it,

relieved I have been able to escape and joyful I will never be able to escape,

already wishing to recreate the moment and frightened that the moment will recur without my wishing,

still tingling, touching the impossible I have just done,

laughing, tasting an apple rolling on my tongue each drop of juice

as if I had just returned to Eden.

 

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