Just this week I was excited to pick up Who I Am, the autobiography of The Who’s lead guitarist, Pete Townshend. Were I to create a soundtrack of my adolescence, much of the music on it would come from The Who. As a teenager I identified with them because they were iconoclastic and cynical, yet somehow managed to communicate a belief that the world could be a better place . . . maybe. They were loud, in-your-face, and famous for destroying instruments (on stage) and their bodies (off stage); still, beneath the veneer of toughness, you could catch glimpses of their vulnerability and idealism. In short, for a rebellious adolescent with a strong sense of moral rectitude (a.k.a. self-righteousness), the music of The Who resonated deeply.
Even if I no longer play their music very often, I remain fond of The Who and still believe their 1973 rock opera Quadrephenia one of the best rock albums of all time. It is the story of a teenager named Jimmy caught in a web of confusing and contradictory impulses and desires. He’s a tough guy, yet a hopeless romantic — by turns a beggar, a hypocrite, and a lunatic. In response to the question, “Who are you?” (ironically, the title of a later Who album), Jimmy has multiple answers.
There is no more fundamental question than this: Who are You? Indeed, it’s the very first question that God asks a human being. After Adam and Eve eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and their eyes are opened, “They heard the sound of the Lord God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day; and the man and his wife hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. The Lord God called out to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you (ayekkah)?’” (Genesis 3:9).
But read in context God’s question is not a simple query about Adam’s whereabouts. Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, the 19th century author of the commentary ha-K’tav v’ha-Kabbalah, points out that in Hebrew, had God wanted to ascertain Adam’s physical locale (like God would need to ask!), the biblical text should have used the word eifo rather than ayekkah. The latter term connotes an inquiry about state of mind, not venue. Where is your head at? What have you become? Now that you’ve eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, who are you, Adam?
Three little words . . . but hardly a simple question. Who I am today may not be the same as yesterday and surely different than tomorrow. I am different in front of the congregation than in front of my children; different with my colleagues than with my congregants. And as we surely know, there is a self we only reveal when completely alone, one that we might be ashamed if anyone — even a loved one — were to see. As for the realm of the unconscious self, there may be still deeper levels of identity of which we are scarcely aware or entirely clueless. Who are you? To answer the question takes a lifetime and then some; though it surely has an answer, it may well be that only God fully knows it.
Within seconds a smartphone in the palm of my hand can find out the height of Mount Everest to the nearest foot or tell me the difference between a Brooklyn egg cream and a Manhattan egg cream (chocolate vs. vanilla syrup). Not surprisingly, then, the enormous difficulty in grappling with the world’s simplest, oldest and most important question doesn’t sit well with our PDQ-if-not-sooner, 4G mentality. Google the question “Who are you?” . . . and your first hit will be a YouTube video of The Who playing their 1978 song of the same name!
The night before last I watched the Vice-Presidential debate. Much of it was the predictable mud-slinging. But then, with a few minutes remaining, moderator Martha Raddatz asked the following: “I want to talk to you very briefly, before we go to closing statements, about your own personal character. If you are elected, what could you both give to this country as a man, as a human being, that no one else could?” I held my breath, for this was a kind of “Who are you?” question, an opening for honest self-reflection, a moment of openness and sharing.
Or not. Predictably, both candidates declined the offer to transcend the world of the sound-byte. Congressman Ryan’s responded: “What you need are people who, when they say they’re going to do something, they go do it. What you need are, when people see problems, they offer solutions to fix those problems. We’re not getting that.” When Raddatz asked Vice-President Biden the same question, she added, “ . . . I’m going to keep you to about 15 seconds here.” Really? 15 seconds to answer “Who are you as a human being?” Not surprisingly, Biden began by complaining that Ryan received 40 seconds to answer . . .
I know all about elevator speeches. You should be able to compress a message or a pitch into 30 seconds. But human beings aren’t products to be sold, they aren’t mission statements or advertisements. Martha Raddatz’s question was a great one, but the fact that she expected the candidates to answer it in 15 (or 40) seconds points to the fact she was fishing for a sound-byte, not a real response. That the candidates didn’t bat an eyelash in tackling the question and that neither remotely addressed it really isn’t so surprising, either. Perhaps the only shocking thing is that few people seemed to pick up on the profundity of the question, the ridiculous manner in which it was posed, and the fact that both candidates side-stepped it. Have we become so anesthetized, so immune to life’s most demanding query?
A tale is told about one of the Hasidic masters, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi, better known as the Ropschitzer Rebbe (1760-1827). Late one evening, the Rebbe was walking through his village when he met up with the night watchman patrolling the quiet streets of the town. “Who are you? For whom do you work?” asked the curious rabbi. The watchman answered and then inquired the same in turn. The words struck the rabbi like an arrow shaft. “I am not working for anybody just yet,” he barely managed to say. After a long silence in which the two continued to walk side by side, Rabbi Naftali asked the watchman, “Would you be willing to come and work for me?” “I should like to,” the man replied, “but what would be my job?” “To accompany me through my day and to ask me now and again, ‘Who are you? For whom do you work?’”
Unlike the Ropschitzer Rebbe, we may not have a night watchman to ask us that all-important question. But surely in the occasional moment of stillness we can hear the distant echo of God’s question to the first human being. “Who are You?” Think carefully. Now take a lifetime to answer.