Where are you – Ayekah? An Existential Question

The question Ayekah? Where Are You? is a very profound question we are asked and asking ourselves.  The very first time it appears in the history of mankind is in Genesis 3:9:

וַיִּקְרָ֛א יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ל֖וֹ אַיֶּֽכָּה׃
God The Lord [HaShem] called out to the Human and said to him, “Where are you?”

The search for one’s self, identities, begins for most of us with the first breathe we take upon our birth.  We continue searching to our last breathe before we pass on to the world of eternal rest and being.  This journey moves along the whole spectrum from total subconsciousness to the highest awareness.  One one end it probes the limits of possibilities and self-distinction, and moves to  existential and transcendent questions: who am I? where am I? where from and where to am I going? Why? What for?  Answers to these questions sometimes take forms of decisions we make, paths we chose to follow, actions that determine the way we live.

However, these partial and pragmatic answers to the necessities of everyday needs evade the primary question itself.  The true answer to that question of: “who am I?” may in fact resolve and answer so many other questions and inner conflicts.  Yet, dealing with the question of identity (or identities) might lead to confusion, to reveal many more questions that have no answers.

Breaking down the Meta-Question into different, “smaller”, questions that can be answered by using philosophical, psychological or scientific (or any combination thereof) tools may provide inadequate answers, however important and practical these answers may be in the process of one’s decision making.  And yet, these answers, even if combined together, do not provide an adequate solution to the basic, fundamental, underlying question: What is one’s place in the world?

The answer to that needs to come from within ones’ being, difficult to express, because expressing it uses words, symbols, frames of reference, that might be inadequate to fully describe the solution.

The existence of this question is as old as the existence of humanity.  It appears in the very beginning of Genesis.  God created Adam (Adam in the context of this study is both the name of the particular person created AND also Human Being without any regard to gender, religion or any other identifier) by breathing into Adam His breath-soul [Neshama] of life, thus turning him into a living soul (Genesis 2:7):

וַיִּיצֶר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים אֶת הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַֽיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה׃.

The LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth.  He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.

Adam at that time is a fractal of the Divine:  he is good, with no doubt (he called all animals by their appropriate name without any hesitation).  Adam is incomplete because he doesn’t have the knowledge of the Bad and Evil.  And yet, Adam is complete: he doesn’t have any doubts, is not confused by information and answers to questions not asked, and as such, he instinctively has the answer to the basic question: he is in this world to cultivate, tend and preserve the world (ibid, ibid, 15).  Adam also has free will; and just like today’s infants, he tries and learns by pushing against the boundaries.

When Adam eats from the fruit of the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad”.  A major transformation happens (ibid 3:7):

וַתִּפָּקַ֙חְנָה֙ עֵינֵ֣י שְׁנֵיהֶ֔ם וַיֵּ֣דְע֔וּ כִּ֥י עֵֽירֻמִּ֖ם הֵ֑ם

Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked.

Unfortunately, the translation is incomplete… the verb “opened” in Hebrew is וַתִּפָּקַ֙חְנָה֙ – a different root from a simple opening.  It means many additional things: supervise, inspect, oversee, make clear, make clever, be sober, in control, begin to understand, be wise, be shrewd, smart, cunning, bright…

Instead of using the verb “perceived” as a translation to the word וַיֵּ֣דְע֔וּ I would use the verb “knew”, which is more accurate and goes better with the multiple meaning of “eye-opening”.

The additional Hebrew meanings of the Hebrew word for naked are: bare, cunning, shrewd, crafty, deceitful.

This transformation introduces Adam to uncertainty, doubt, confusion, vulnerability and fear.

A voice sounds (is it God’s voice external to Adam, or is it God’s voice internal to Adam’s Godly Soul?), asking: אַיֶּכָּה? – Ayekah? Where are you?

The frame, the bookends, of life are (ibid, ibid 19):

עַ֤ד שֽׁוּבְךָ֙ אֶל הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה כִּ֥י מִמֶּ֖נָּה לֻקָּ֑חְתָּ כִּֽי עָפָ֣ר אַ֔תָּה וְאֶל עָפָ֖ר תָּשֽׁוּב

Until you return to the ground — For from it you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.

The fundamental, primal, question is what happens between these two bookends.  The mere existence of the question implies loss: a loss in both spatial and temporal realms.  Where from did I get to a place that I don’t know where it is?  Which direction should I head towards?  What do I do here and what have I done to get to here?  Wherever and whatever is “here”?  What am I going to do?  Another question that accompanies all the above is the Why:  What is the reason, the cause, and what for?  (Hebrew has two different words for Why:  לָמָה – Lamah – what purpose, and מַדוּעַ – Madu-ah – what is the reason, the cause).

The search for an answer may eventually leads one to find it not within the inner core of one’s soul.  Instead, it is external to oneself.  It may end by going around to the origin of Adam’s living existence: the breath, Neshama, of God.  The Psalmist puts it in words so nicely in Psalm 73:26:

כָּלָ֥ה שְׁאֵרִ֗י וּלְבָ֫בִ֥י צוּר־לְבָבִ֥י וְחֶלְקִ֗י אֱלֹהִ֥ים לְעוֹלָֽם׃

My flesh and my heart faileth; But God is the rock of my heart and my portion for ever.

According to commentators (Ibn-Ezra and Radak), the first “heart” in this verse is the Nefesh – the life force that leaves the body and vanishes when one dies.  The second “heart” in the verse is the soul, the Neshama, that belongs to God and returns to His realm for eternity.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz expresses this conclusion very eloquently.  “For in truth, it is not one question with two sides, but a meeting place of two questions.  That of a man seeking himself, and God seeking man”.

Latest News and events

Yom Kippur 1973: My Personal Memories of that Horrific War


On Yom Kippur 2023, I shared my memories with Havurah Shir Hadash congregation. The following is an edited transcript of the recording that is also shared here.

United with Israel We Shall Prevail and Overcome!


It’s time for us to unite and act together: All Israel are responsible for each other! Now, when Israel is under the vicious attack of the barbarian Hamas no one can stand indifferent. We all must speak up and show solidarity with Israel.

Repentance and Forgiveness – Two Sides of One Coin: Reframing the Past and Changing the Future


Rosh HaShanah, Jewish New Year, calls to examine our actions during the past year, make amends and promise not to repeat mistakes. This process is called Teshuvah, repentance.

Ekev – The Shema Second Portion: The Consequences of Free Choice


Parashat Ekev ends with the second portion of the Shema prayer. In it, Moshe explains the consequences, for better or worse, of choices the People or Israel will make.


Skip to content