When NBA journeyman Jason Collins announced this week that he was gay there were a variety of reactions ranging from vocal support from many quarters to condemnation, although the latter was rare. The more common counter to those who were enthusiastic was a sense of indifference. Why does it really matter what one player with a less than superstar profile has to say about his private life?
What I found interesting, however, about Collins statement was his full proclamation: "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay." My rabbinic instinct is always to read words closely, especially those that seem extraneous. Obviously the point of the statement was to reveal his sexuality. Did Jason Collins need to mention that he was a 34-year-old center, a matter of public record, or that he was black, a fact apparent to the eye? However, by expressing himself in this way, Collins in my mind shifted the focus from the particular aspects of his identity to the key words in his declaration: "I am." What makes this story powerful for me is not the idea of a public individual becoming the first male athlete currently playing in a major sports league to reveal that he is gay, but that Jason Collins modeled the liberating and transformative power of the words "I am."
To say "I am" is to own another piece of our story and at the same time share it with others. Unlike the "you are" which can label a person in a restrictive way, I am allows me to embrace an aspect of my self and yet keep open all the possibilities of what that part of me means.
In this declaration we also connect to the deeper source of meaning and possibility in our lives -- to G*d -- who revealed G*d's own name to Moses at the burning bush as "I am" and repeats as a constant refrain after many of the commandments: "I am Yud Heh Vav Heh [the unpronouncable Divine name]."
One of the prayers which is said daily in Jewish liturgy, ani tefilati, is often translated "this I pray," but is more accurately translated, "I am my prayer." The power of the "I am" is a prayer -- whether for healing, for wholeness, for acceptance or for peace. The "I am" is a way of affirming the blessings with which we are bestowed, recognizing the core of our identity, and giving thanks for the limitless possibilities before us.
May we embrace the opportunity to declare "I am" and to be a blessing.