The Power of “I Am…” One Year after Charlie Hedbo

The Power of "I Am..." One Year after Charlie Hedbo

A year ago, after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, one of the most prevalent responses was the declaration “Je suis Charlie”, I am Charlie. Soon after as the terrible assault unfolded, some added the phrase “Je suis Juif”, I am a Jew, to reflect the victims of the Kosher market taken over by the same attackers. That incident also led to “Je suis Ahmed,” a reference to the Muslim police officer who was slain while protecting Charlie Hebdo’s offices. Other versions of the ” I am” tag have become familiar elements of responding to the plight of victims of violence, terrorism, or injustice.

The impulse to say I am goes farther than “I support” or even “I stand with”. To say “I am” is to attempt to strip away the distance, geographic or emotional, between me and someone standing in the crosshairs of violence or injustice; to declare, “I am vulnerable, I can be wounded”. At the same time, there is a recognition of the original power of having stood apart in the first place. Having not been there, not been the target.

Our own vulnerability can be a powerful card to play.

The solidarity attempted in our own “I am” reminds me of a moment recounted in a pivotal conversation at the heart of a core story of Jewish wisdom. When G-d appears to Moses to proclaim that G-d suffers along with the Israelites in Egypt, the name G-d chooses to go by is Ehyeh Asher Eyheh, I Am that I Am. Like our I am, the Divine I Am seeks to express solidarity, but also, powerfully, to assume vulnerability. The One who is understood to be the author of Creation itself, to be immune from contingency and certainly from calamity, has reached out to say: I suffer with you.

What might that statement mean for each human being created in G-d’s image? Perhaps, not only that our experience matters, but that our goal must be to first see our likeness and connection to all human beings, that like G-d, neither can we consider ourselves immune from contingency; that while “there but by the grace of G-d go I” may serve as an important reminder of our need for gratitude, G-d’s example here represents a more active stake in the situation. In this ever shrinking world, your future and my future are inextricably linked, and so your future has direct impact on mine.

As world events unfold in a manner that is frequently unnerving, our interconnection can often be the source of strength and hope. May a new year usher in a time when “I am” does not separate us, but brings the world toward peace.


Michael Bernstein

Michael Bernstein, a Rabbi, has served since 2009 as Rabbi of Congregation Gesher L'Torah, a vibrant and dynamic Synagogue community in north Atlanta where each person's story is embraced and Judaism is personal. He was ordained as a conservative Rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1999. He and his wife Tracie have three children, Ayelet, Yaron and Liana.

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