There are three words in Hebrew that mean essentially “the full monty.” They are “Ehyeh asher ehyeh,” translated as “I am who am” (or “I-shall-be that I-shall-be”), the response God gave Moses when he asked for his name.
My theology professor tried to explain the phrase one day in class for a course called “Christology” (not the study of crystals).
“I am who am,” he repeated several times, enunciating every syllable. I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Sam I am!” I blurted out.
He did not laugh.
In an eloquent piece for “Notre Dame Magazine,” Brian Doyle, editor of “Portland Magazine” and a huge writing hero of mine, connects the meaning of “I am who am” to two other significant Hebrew words, “tikkun olam,” translated most commonly as “repairing the world,” or bringing the world closer to perfection (often used to explain the Jewish concept of social justice).
For Brian, both “I am who am” and “repairing the world” describe a person’s vocation, what we were born to do–the way in which we empty ourselves, so to overcome despair, as Kierkegaard would say–or the way we participate in redemption (that is, do a good thing for the world or move it in the right direction).
The following is what he writes in his article, “The Stories That Save Us“:
“There are two words in the lore of Judaism, our parent stock, the branch of the human family that heard the words “I Am Who Am” (the bluntest syntax in the history of the world!), and these two words, “tikkun olam” in the Hebrew, are easy to translate but hard to explain. My friends who speak the ancient tongue tell me the words mean repairing the world, that the universe when it was imagined into being could not hold the unimaginable infinity of the Word, and so shattered into countless shards. Our job, the job of every human being, perhaps every living being of every shape and size, is to, by living attentively, by being your truest self, repair and restore the broken gift.
“By now I am absolutely sure what I am supposed to do: sense stories, catch some by their brilliant tails as they rocket by, carve and sculpt them into arrows and fire them into the hearts of as many people as I can reach on this bruised and blessed planet. That’s all. That’s enough.”