The Remarkable Meaning Of Our Hebrew Identity & The Revolutionary Hebrew Message
by David Gabriel Goldenberg, who writes the Mikra newsletter. Sign up free to see how Judaism's ancient sources explain modern Israel's thorniest problems!Hebrew identity has extraordinary depth and significance, yet the average Jew is completely unaware of it. Hebrew identity has stunning beauty and gasp-inducing depth. It's inspiring, to say the least. So let’s consider what it means to be a Hebrew. Rav Yehuda Leon Askenazi, aka Manitou, was one of the fathers of the rebirth of Hebrew identity in modern times. He spoke and wrote about it regularly, and I’ll quote liberally from his book, Ki Mitzion, here. In Ki Mitzion, Rav Askenazi he elaborates on the midrash (interpretation of our sages from the Mishnaic period) that addresses the term “Avram HaIvri,” Abram The Hebrew. The midrash quotes several opinions regarding what it means that Avram was “The Hebrew.”
Rav Askenazi explains that these three opinions explain Avram‘s purpose in life. “He is the last of Ever’s descendants who still speaks the language of prophecy, Hebrew, which was the universal language prior to the confusion of the tower of Babylon. Avram launches the messianic project of the history of Israel, a project that places him in opposition to the imperialisms of the entire world, until the project’s goal [the Redemption] is achieved.” People of Prophecy“Rav Yehudah says: The whole world was on one side (“ever” - the same root as Ivri or Hebrew), and Avram was on the other side.
Rav Nechemia says: He was one of the descendants of [a person called] Ever.
The Sages says: He was on the other side (ever) of the river (the Euphrates) and he spoke Hebrew.”
Rav Avraham Livni’s book “The Return of Israel” elaborates on this. (I’m quoting liberally from him, without necessarily quoting each idea directly, to save time.) Rav Livni explains that the Hebrew people are the lone people blessed with prophecy - the transmission of G-d’s Word. Indeed, Hebrew is the language in which prophets receive prophecy. (That doesn’t mean that everyone who speaks Hebrew is a prophet, but rather that they have one of the basic requirements to prophecy.) Furthermore, Rav Askenazi explains, the bare details in the Torah about the first Hebrew, Ever, show that he was a prophet. In the course of enumerating Sem’s descendants, the Torah just lists each generation by name, except for Ever. Ever named his son Peleg, “for in his days the earth was divided (niphlega).” Ever named his son based on what would happen in the course of his son’s lifetime. In parallel to this, Rav Askenazi would explain that as the universal language, the message carried by the Hebrews is meant to be heard by the entire world. Not that the whole world or even any of it needs to convert to Judaism – Judaism is not a “universal” religion, in Rav Askenazi’s terms. However, the moral message of Judaism has a “universalist” component. This is encapsulated by the 7 Noahide laws. (For more on the Noahide laws, and a new prayer book written by Rabbi Ouri Cherky for gentiles abiding by the 7 Noahide laws, see the Bnei Noah World Center.) That explains Rav Nechemia and part of the Sages’ view. That Avram was The Hebrew indicates that he is the lone descendent of Ever to still speak the language in which prophecy can be received, and that Abram is descended from a prophet. This also explains the use of the definite “The” in the phrase, “The Hebrew.” The other people who were genetically Hebrews stopped speaking the language of prophecy and were lost to assimilation and to persecution by the Chaldeans (Abram’s natal town of Ur Kasdim translates as Furnace of the Chaldeans...). Opposing The World’s Idols Aka Ideals
To better understand Rav Yehudah’s comment that Avram opposed the world, we need to know that G-d’s message is often unwelcome amongst the nations. When Moses, speaking for G-d and the Hebrews, called upon Pharaoh to release the Hebrews, Pharaoh says, “Mi HaShem Asher eshma beKolo.” “Who is G-d that I should listen to His Voice?” G-d has many names. Joseph, in his interactions with the Egyptians, taught them the name Elokim. Elokim is associated with the laws of nature, as in the verse, “Bereshit Bara Elokim,” In the beginning, G-d created. The laws of nature are strict, immutable. Though the Egyptians knew and could accept a “G-d of nature,” when it came time to recognize a force beyond nature, Pharaoh answers, “Who is G-d that I should listen to His Voice?” Pharaoh cannot grasp the name HaShem. That name’s Hebrew spelling, Yud-Keh-Vav-Keh, is a contraction of the Hebrew words for Past (hayah), Present (hoveh) and Future (ihyeh). It thus indicates that G-d is Infinite. The miracles of yetziat mitzrayim – the departure from Egypt - overturned nature to express that HaShem is the Lord of All - even the usually immutable laws of nature. And since He created the world and didn’t just abandon it thereafter, since He created and continues to care about the world - as seen in the departure from Egypt - it’s essential to hear his message and what he wants of mankind. The Worship of Nature Today – Materialism & Science as gods
Today, the worship of nature continues.
- On the most literal level, the environmental movement leads some to an ideal of man serving nature. Perhaps the most notorious example of this ideal was the kindness that the Nazis showed to animals, while torturing humans.
- In a broader sense, nature is the measured, limited world. This is symbolized by the Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim, from the root tzar – limited and thus measurable, as opposed to infinite.
- This measured, material world is the focus of Western society. The exact quantity of wealth of the richest people fascinates the media. Science, Tech, Engineering and Math (STEM) education is the new ideal for high school students in the West – the exact sciences that are characterized by measurement via the scientific method. Top scoring athletes are revered, even when they show themselves to have miserable characters. For the West, quantity is quality.
The Depressing Implication of Worshipping Nature
Rav Askenazi wrote numerous times that idols are ideals. The deity statue of the Ancient World was a symbol for some ideal. The Hebrews departing Egypt slaughtered a sheep, Egypt’s most important G-d in that era. Rav Askenazi explains that the Egyptians worshipped sheep because the ram was the astrological sign that was dominant in both that era and during that time of the year (corresponding to the astrological sign of Aries, symbolized by a ram). In other words, the sheep represented the greatest force of nature – the superstar that, along with the other stars, pre-determined man’s life from birth to death. The sign of the ram represented Egypt’s idea(l)s of determinism. Both Rav Livni and Rav Askenazi show that this is the worst form of pessimism. This worship views man as incapable of anything beyond that which is dictated by the forces of nature – the stars, or genetics, or whatever science measures and calls our “socio-economic environment” at birth. The Hebrews Oppose The Imperial Ideals & Advance Loftier Goals
While we as Hebrews recognize the great value and importance of STEM aka nature aka the material world, we know that the true ideal is spiritual, infinite. Science is not an ideal in itself. It is a tool to serve G-d. As Hebrews, we recognize HaShem and express the message that there is a purpose to this world that goes beyond the material, limited world. That purpose is to know G-d to the extent possible and fulfill HaShem’s will. And because the world has a Creator, we know that not everything is pre-determined. The world had a starting point and is not just some weird, ever-lasting nature that dictates some pathetic reality where humanity’s optimal existence is to just “eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” On the contrary, the Hebrews' departure from Egypt symbolizes hope for the future of mankind.
There is a future where creatures return to closeness with their Creator. Before the world was created, there was only G-d. His Infinite Self filled everything, was everything. Creation necessarily implied a distance from G-d, a separation between Creator and creature. That distance is the source of spiritual dissatisfaction that one finds in all cultures and times, often discussed as a “search for meaning or purpose.” The departure from Egypt, which was the first redemption of the Hebrews, showed concretely - and not just in some philosophical theory – that created and Creator can again become close. This is what Rav Yehudah’s view in the midrash - that we oppose the philosophies of the world’s empires - adds to our understanding of being a Hebrew. The Egyptians then, the West today, and many others along the way, have idolized various ideals. The reality is that the world doesn’t need to invent an ideal. G-d already articulated one in the Torah, and we have the free choice to pursue and attain it. We are not slaves bound by nature! (Rejecting the Egyptian cultural norm of being slaves bound by nature, explains Rav Askenazi, is one of the meanings of the Haggadah’s injunction to show oneself as if one is leaving Egypt.) Avram & The Messianic Project - There Is Hope For The Future Fortunately for the world, it has hope, has promise. There is t’shuvah – return/repentance - and no sinner can say that his fellows or G-d will not forgive him. T’shuvah’s concrete possibility in this world is most explicitly evident from the Jewish people’s return to its land. (Rav Livni’s book, The Return of Israel, paints this in dramatic colours and proportions that are a delight to read.) The prophecies regarding our return to the land ‘be’Ever hanahar’ (beyond the Euphrates, the land of Israel’s Biblical eastern border) have come true. So too will all the prophecies in the Bible come true. (That’s the 'messianic project,' referred to by Rav Askenazi.) As we develop the land of the Hebrews, we transmit the message of the Hebrews. That often puts us at odds with a world (hi UN!) that doesn’t want to or have the ability to grasp G-d’s message. (One could say it also puts Hebrews at odds with ourselves, when we live in exile and unconsciously choose to idealize high finance, wealth, science etc. I hope and pray that my fellow Hebrews find the courage to be true to their own identities.) Yet despite this opposition, we know that the messianic project is coming to fruition. And thus G-d’s message to the world, which we bear as the messengers, will be heard. Could there be anything greater than being a guarantor of optimism for the world? We have the immense privilege, and the great responsibility, of being Hebrews. And the further privilege of living in the land of the Hebrews. We needn’t be afraid of standing in opposition to the world’s various empires (USA, Iran etc.). Indeed, just as the whole world spoke Hebrew in the past, they will again in the future. We are the descendants of prophets and bearers of G-d’s unique message. No pressure!Chag sameach from your fellow Hebrew,David Gabriel GoldenbergPhoto: Rikud Degalim - Flag Dancing on Yom Yerushalayim at the Kotel - Photo credit: Ron Almog