In this week’s reading, Abraham is called an Ivri, a Hebrew, for the first time. “And it was told to Abraham, the Hebrew… (Genesis 14:13).” What is the meaning of this word Ivri, one of the most common descriptors of the Jews?
An Ivri, simply, is “the one on the other side.” “The other side of the Jordan River” is the common translation of Ever HaYarden. A simple interpretation of this description is that Abraham was foreign, other, to the land of Canaan. He was a native of Haran, a region on the other side of the Euphrates.
The Medrash, however, says this word reflects a far deeper distinction, going to the essence of Abraham’s personal outlook and beliefs. “The entire world was on one side,” explains the Medrash, “and Abraham was on the other.” The many stories of Abraham’s clashes with the dominant pagan culture bear this out, from being thrown into a fiery furnace by Nimrod (as described in the Medrash) to destroying the idols of his father Terach.
In our time, the name Ivri, Hebrew, has proven its staying power. It is almost as familiar to people as the terms Judaism and Jewish. Many of the values and beliefs Abraham introduced to the world, Monotheism, the primacy of kindness and sacrifice for others, empathy for the suffering and spiritual health of others, have become the dominant belief in our day. In this way the Hebrew has shown the world the beauty of the values of Abraham and they’ve joined him on the other side.
Nonetheless, Jewish practice and belief oftentimes runs counter to the cultures of the world, even as the pagan cultures have fallen away. The Jew is still regarded as “the other.” White supremacists see the Jews as their greatest enemy, as the rise of anti-semitism has become more and more concerning.
The Jew is also regularly tempted to forego his observance of the Sabbath, the Kosher dietary laws, or even the Torah’s guidelines for honesty in business and relationships. The promise of a better-paying job and more comfortable lifestyle challenge his core values. At those times he can take inspiration and encouragement from his forefather Abraham who sacrificed everything, his life and his family, to give birth to a nation instilled with the strength to conduct themselves differently. The Jews are destined to stand out as a people faithful to G-d and His Torah. (Based on Sefer Taam V’Daas, HaRav Shternbach)