Listen to this while reading this post.
The next word on our list is אני. Ani is a personal pronoun, i.e. it is a word used to refer to people. It is related to ‘you’, ‘he’ and ‘she’ which are all personal pronouns. We must be very self-centred. ‘I’ is the 12th most frequent word in Hebrew, ‘He’ is 16th and ‘You’ is 35th!
The are two different words in Hebrew that mean ‘I’ – אני [A-ni] and אנוכי 9 [A-no-chee]. Both have exactly the same meaning. They both appear in biblical, rabbinic and modern Hebrew. Although both אני and אנוכי appear in the bible, the earlier you go in the biblical text the more common the word אנוכי is.
There are some unique ways that the word אני is used in the Torah. In Hebrew grammar, you add the personal pronoun to every verb. Therefore, one can infer the word ‘I’ from the suffix at the end of a word. For example, the word for ‘walked’ is הלך. To say ‘I walked’ it is enough to add the letters ‘תי’ at the end of the verb. The word הלכתי means ‘I walked’ – without using the word אני at all. So technically, every time אני appears together with a verb, it is potentially a superfluous word. This opens a rich seam for Midrash and Bible commentary.
Take for example the dramatic story of Jacob. In Genesis chapter 28 he escapes to Haran. On his first night alone he dreams of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven. He wakes in the morning and declares:
(16) אָכֵן יֵשׁ יְהוָה בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וְאָנֹכִי, לֹא יָדָעְתִּי.
Lawrence Kushner wrote a whole book on this verse. He sought a way to translate the complexity of the Hebrew into English, and comes up with : God Was in This Place & I, i Did Not Know. In this book he goes through the multiple ways commentators found profound meaning in this verse, based on the doubling of the word ‘I’.
There is another unique use of the word אני in the Torah. There are many different commandments in the Torah. Some of the commandments are followed by the statement ‘ I am the Lord’. What does this add? There are some commandments that are so personal that they are impossible to police, for example, the prohibition against ‘hating your fellow’, or against ‘spreading gossip’. The words ‘I am the Lord, is extra reminder that if you think you can get away with transgressing this commandment, remember that God knows your thoughts and knows if your heart is pure or not.
Finally, the Mishnah also pays attention to the word אני. There is a famous saying of Hillel:
אם אין אני לי מי לי, וכשאני לעצמי מה אני?
If I am not for myself who will be with me? And if I am [only] for myself, what am I?
The Mishnah is trying to balance our concern for ourselves with our concern for others. We are individuals and part of a society. Both are important. If we can’t properly balance ‘I’ and ‘You’ then we can’t accomplish anything. We need the confidence to place ourselves firmly in the centre of our world, and the modesty to know when to give centre stage to others.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner
My Hebrew Word thanks the World Zionist Organisation and Masorti Olami for their support of this Project.