From creation itself, Judaism has been a faith of liminals - boundaries and separations. Night and day, earth and sky, pure and impure, sacred and profane, and so on. Some things are on one side of a boundary, some thing are on the other side. Twilights, those periods that are not quite one or the other, these, Judaism often teaches, are those times when discernment is hardest (and this is surely borne out in the real world experience of a twilight.) And because Judaism has recognized these liminal areas as places of possible confusion, it has erected boundaries on either side of the boundaries, ostensibly to keep us from wandering into one of those boundary zones where things aren't so clear.
I think, too, that many, if not most people, tend to be uncomfortable in fuzzy regions, grey areas, and the like. Yet, different as we all are, there are those who revel is spending most of their time in the fuzzy areas. And for both the scientists and the religionists, there are plenty of fuzzy areas on which to spend time.
Has human comfort with liminals increased over the ages? Are we becoming more secure in examining the fuzzy places in our lives and in the universe? It would seem so, though I'm not so sure. Let's take a look.
In Chapter 14 of Bereshit (Genesis) we read the tale of Avram's rescue of Lot, through confronting the various Kings who had attacked S'dom and Gomorrah and carried off both goods and people (including Lot) back to their own cities. In verse 13, we learn how Avram is told of this by one who managed to escape the fate of so many others. In this verse, this escapee came and told "Avram Ha-Ivri" what had happened to Lot and the others.
Scholars debate and argue exactly what "ivri" means and about its etymology. Many suggest it comes from the term 'apiru (sometimes Hapiru,) a nomadic people referred to in Egyptian and other writings from the ancient near east. It's certainly a possibility to hold open, and ties in nicely with speculations about how and why the Jewish people wound up enslaved in Egypt. You can do your own research on that if it interests you. I'm taking another tack.)
Other scholars and linguists see "ivri" as deriving from the Hebrew verbal root ayin-bet-resh meaning "to cross over." It also fits nicely-as we are the people who crossed over the Yam Suf (Reed Sea,) and the Yarden (the Jordan.) We will later read of significant crossings over and related occurrences in Yaakov's life.
Yet, although the rabbis might wish for us to truly believe that Avram was indeed the first "Ivri," it's more likely he is so designated here for entirely different reasons.
One possible explanation also helps clear up another conundrum in the Torah. G"d instructs Avram to "go forth for yourself.....from your land, your birthplace." All the great commentators have puzzled over this. After all, Avram had already left his birthplace, Ur, and was in Haran. Rashi suggests that it just means that Avram should go yet further away. Others (like Nachmanides) suggest that Avram was actually from Haran, but this suggestion is complicated by something we read later in 15:7 in which G"d says "I brought you out of Ur." So archaeologists, scholars and others suggest that there may have been more than one Ur. People in ancient times did what we still do today-taking old place names and using them in new locales. Ancient Ur is believed to be a long way off from Haran. Haran is north of Canaan, situated between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Ur is somewhat further west and located south of the Euphrates. Some scholars have suggested that a group of people from Ur may have relocated across the Euphrates and perhaps a little further East and created an Ur of their own. They become the "people who crossed over (to the other side") - that made them Ivri, from that root word meaning "to cross over."
Well, after a time, we always tend to think of those who "crossed over to the other side" as simply "the others." Those who are different from us.
Avram surely fits that description. He may be "ivri" simply by virtue of having journeyed from Ur (whichever Ur that might have been) to Haran. I'll bet they saw Avram as "other." And our Jewish faith was crafted around creating us as a unique community - it cultivated being seen as "the other." Some modern takes on Judaism are breaking down those barriers, crossing those borders.
Being one who has crossed over (and I'm not talking Jonathan Edwards mumbo-jumbo here) sounds like being one who has crossed a boundary, not one living within that fuzzy liminal area. Yet does one ever really "leave home?" We do bring our "baggage" with us wherever we go. Thus crossings over, whether physical, psychological, or metaphysical always include a little bit of things tugging us back into those grey areas.
Avram may have crossed the border from idolatry into the realms of monolatry, yet our Jewish history shows that Avram's descendants always felt a little tug back toward the idolatry side. We still feel it today, although our idols aren't statues by more things like money, power, television, computers, video games, etc.
So to be "ivri" doesn't just mean to be on the other side, to have crossed over. It also means having the constant tension between where we came from and where we are. An accurate depiction of Judaism then and now.
Our very Torah, though some claim to have the knowledge and insight to see it as black and white, is really quite grey. Or is that gray? It's both grey and gray, and both black and white, too!
(By the way, "grey" or "gray" in Hebrew is "afor" from the root meaning "dust." As we are made from dust, being grey and thinking gray are part and parcel of what we are.)
Notice, by the way, how you can spell it either grey or gray? How appropriate that we think of grey areas as gray areas! Even the very word itself has a confusion as to its own correct spelling! Just like the word "ivri" is unclear in its meaning.
We are "Ivri." Let us revel in both living on the other side, and also living in the grey and gray of boundary areas. Armed with this knowledge, we can boldly go forth as did our ancestor Avram. Go forth, Ivri!
©2005 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some other musings on this parasha:
Lekh Lekha 5764-Ma'aseir
Mikol-The Ten Percent Solution
Lekh Lekha 5760-Things Are Seldom What They Seem An Excerpt from the "Journal of Lot"
Lekh Lekha 5761-The Intellectual Echad
Lekh Lekha 5762-Plainly Spoken
Lekh Lekha 5763-No Explanations
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