Tuesday, October 23, 2018

What's in a Name?

Each week one of the clergy team at our congregation sends out a brief D'var Torah to the congregation. Here is the one from this past Shabbat:

Much of the book of Genesis focuses on origin stories. This week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, is no different. It tells us of God commanding Abram to take his wife Sarai and leave behind all that he knows to go to a land that God will show him. Abram does this. The Torah does not tell us why God picked Abram. Instead we turn to the rabbis, who created a midrash which teaches us that when Abram was young, he worked in his father Terah’s idol shop. When left alone one day, Abram decided to destroy all of the idols because he believed only in one God. He found the whole notion of idolatry to be abhorrent,[1] and he explained as such when his furious father uncovered what had transpired.

However, there is a hint as to why Abram may have been chosen that can be found directly in the Torah. A little later in Lech Lecha there is a description of an ongoing war of five kings against four (Genesis 14). Suffice it to say, without getting into all of the specifics, Abram becomes involved in this battle because the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah kidnap his nephew Lot. 

“A fugitive brought the news to Abram the Hebrew (ivri).”[2] Scholars have been unable to ascertain the origins of the word ivri, though there is a scholarly theory that it is related to the word Habiru. As the Plaut Torah Commentary notes, “During the 19th to 14th centuries B.C.E., a class of people known as Habiru lived in the Fertile Crescent. They may originally have come from Arabia and may have been related by family ties; they became prominent in Mesopotamia and after spread out all the way to Egypt.”[3]

In this sense, being identified as an ivri meant one was an outsider but an outsider of significance. This would explain why people like Jonah introduced himself as an ivri to the sailors when they asked him to identify himself.[4]

The term Ivri could also be related to the name Ever, Noah’s grandson of whom Abram is related. But my favorite explanation is that “the word ivri is said to be derived from ever, meaning ‘on the other side of,’ or ‘beyond.’ According to Rabbi Judah, the words ‘Abraham the Ivri’ meant that the whole world stood on one side and he on the other, that is, Abrahams’ faith ran counter to what all others believed.”[5]

Judaism is often maligned as a tradition of conformism. However, I would disagree. As we are all inheritors of being Hebrews, ivri; we are reminded that our heritage is based on the notion of not being like everyone else. Being an ivri means not accepting things simply because that is the way they are. Being an ivri means standing up for values rooted in our tradition of fairness, righteousness and justice. To be an ivri will often mark us as an outsider, just like Abram. But as we learn more about Abram’s journey and Sarai’s journey and the journeys of so many of our ancestors, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

[1] Genesis Rabbah 38
[2] Genesis 14:13
[3] Plaut, Gunther, ed. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pg. 106
[4] Jonah 1:9
[5] Plaut, Gunther, ed. The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pg. 114

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