Every morning in the Siddur, we ask a number of profound questions that go to the heart of who we are and how we live our lives. These questions appeared first in the Neilah service of Yom Kippur (Yoma 87b) and later migrated into the daily liturgy. The first question, Mah anachnu? (What are we?) is the ultimate existential question.
It is related to the question, Who are we? The answer to that question is multi-layered and multifaceted. Our names – how we identify to others and we are identified by others – is one way that question is answered. Before we were Jews, we were Israelites and before that, we were known as Hebrews.
That identity is introduced in this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, when Abraham is called ha’ivri (the Hebrew) (Gen 14:13). Why is he called and identified so? The shoresh (three-letter root) of ha’ivri is ayin-bet-reish. It means to cross over, to come from the other side. In the case of Abraham, living at the time “at the terebinths of Mamre” (Gen 14:13), near present-day Hebron, he was known as having come from the other side, beyond the Euphrates River. On this the Midrash expands:
Rabbi Judah said, “[ha’ivri signifies that] the whole world was on one side (eber) while he was on the other side (eber) [as Abraham was the only true believer in the one true God]. Rabbi Nehemiah said, “[It denotes] that he was descended from Eber (Gen 11:10-26). The rabbis say, “It means that he came across the river [based on the verse, ‘And I took your father Abraham from the other side of the river’ Joshua 24:3]; further, that he spoke in the language of the dwellers across the river (Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 42:8).
“The multiplicity of the Sages’ answers speaks to the slippery nature of the term and its origins.”Dr. Albert Freidberg
Dr. Albert Freidberg points out, “The multiplicity of the Sages’ answers speaks to the slippery nature of the term and its origins.” Rabbi Karyn Keder adds, “‘lech lecha’ means to embark on a journey of self-awareness and manifest your life’s purpose,” while Dr. Yitzhak Feder comments that Abraham was “a pioneer who crossed cultural and religious boundaries in founding a new faith.” All of these remind us that Abraham carried a new, bold perspective. In that light, Abraham models the importance of fresh thinking.
A story on sermons and improvement
There is a story from the classroom of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he taught homiletics for some 50 years and saw the study of the Torah as a lifelong moral education. On Mondays, students would come to class and present a sermon that would be critiqued by Kaplan. On Thursdays, students would return to the class and present the improved sermon based on what Kapan had told them.
ONE WEEK, a student came to class on Monday and presented his sermon, and Kaplan offered his critique. On Thursday, the student returned and gave the sermon incorporating all that Kaplan had said. Kaplan then added fresh criticism. The student was dumbfounded. In response, Kaplan pounded the table and said something along the lines of “You presume between Monday and Thursday of this week I have not evolved and grown as a person and see things differently.”
To this, Rabbi Ray Artz, who studied with Kaplan at the seminary, comments, “True idealistic pragmatists are always looking to see things in a new way in order to address new problems of which they become aware. Both Kaplan and, in his own way, Heschel were struggling with their understanding of their own existential Jewish meaning. Therefore, they had to create dynamic rhetoric, each in his own way, in order for them to contend with their own doubts and hopes.”
“True idealistic pragmatists are always looking to see things in a new way in order to address new problems of which they become aware. Both Kaplan and, in his own way, Heschel were struggling with their understanding of their own existential Jewish meaning. Therefore, they had to create dynamic rhetoric, each in his own way, in order for them to contend with their own doubts and hopes.”Rabbi Ray Artz
An interesting dynamic of the name ivri is that within the Torah it is not used by Abraham and Sarah’s descendants as an identity among themselves; rather, it is used as a way to identify with foreigners or used by foreigners to identify members of the Hebrew tribes. In relation to this, Jeremy Benstein points out in his fascinating book Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes: A Tribal Language in a Global World: “Some even see this as a derogatory term from outside, an ethnic slur that others used, which the Israelites then appropriated for themselves. As biblical scholar Yitzhak Feder notes about the term ‘Hebrew,’ ‘the self-appropriation of the Other’s derogatory term serves as a subversive expression of self-empowerment, comparable to the use (albeit controversial) of [the N word] in hip-hop music.’”
One of the most direct uses of the term for self-identification is by Jonah, who when fleeing from God is confronted by sailors who ask him a number of questions including, “What is your country and of what people are you?” Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew” (Jonah 1:8). Similar to Abraham, Jonah takes a journey. That is to say, the name expresses physical movement – one from the other side.
But there is another movement contained within the word ivri: an inner movement that includes spiritual growth and spiritual wrestling. Abraham not only leaves his birthplace and travels/moves to Israel, but he also discovers within himself a radical new way of understanding God. While Jonah, although reluctantly, tries to come to terms with a God who prefers mercy and tshuvah (turning, changing one’s ways to more righteous living) over strict justice and punishment.
Ivri is not about stasis. Rabbi J. Leonard Levy wrote, “Variation is a characteristic of living things... because life and change are co-extensive... Our bodies change; our minds change; our hearts change; the muscles of our bodies change; the capillaries, the arteries – everything changes, and ultimately, we die; for life is made up of a series of progressive changes.”
Change is the constant of our lives (part of the appeal of ritual is it provides an anchor in the sea of those changes). Change affects us in a number of ways. How do we incorporate change into our lives? Are we willing to change when needed or do we put up resistance? How do we feel, how do we adapt to the pace of the many developments in the world – what Popes Francis I and Benedict XVI called “rapidification.”
In response to that constant of change in our lives and in our world, we inherit from Abraham haivri, Abraham the Hebrew, a reminder that the existential footprint of the journey of our lives is one of internal and external movement. ■
The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is the rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.