Lech Lecha - go, get up and leave all that is known to you, your home, your land and go to the place that I will show you. With these words, with this command, the Jewish People’s thousand long journey began. Avram (who will later be renamed Abraham) hears this command and heeds it. How lucky we are as a people that our forefather Abraham heard that call and selflessly put aside all that was comfortable and easy in his life in order to become so much more.
We know precious little about Abraham from the Torah before he leaves his father’s home and his homeland. The Torah gives no answer to ‘why Abraham?’ Why this man? While generations of rabbis have written pages and chapters on these important questions, I want to stay this week with one of the few insights the Torah provides us about this history shaping figure. In Parashat Lech Lecha, Avram leaves his home and goes to the place where God showed him, to Canaan, to the Land of Israel. In the next chapter we read that Avram, Sarai (later Sarah) his wife, and their household are forced to flee to Egypt because of a great famine in the land. They eventually return to the Land of Israel, settling in a place called Mamre.
The next chapter of Genesis describes a series of war’s between local kings. As a consequence of one of these wars Avram’s nephew, Lot, is displaced. When a fugitive of the fighting comes to report to Avram on all that has happened, the Torah introduces Avram in a new way, as Avram Ha-Ivri. In most translations, the word HaIvri is translated as The Hebrew, indicating that Avram is now understood to be the forefather of a new, distinct people and nation, the Hebrews, of which the Jewish people are all descendents. While this translation is correct, in my mind it does not do justice to the deeper meaning behind the Hebrew word, Ivri, and just how apt this descriptor has been throughout Jewish history.
The Hebrew language, like all Semitic languages, is based on a system of roots. The word Ivri comes from the root ע-ב-ר (ayin, bet, resh). This root yields many words in both ancient and modern Hebrew, all of which having to do with being in motion. So while we read it as ‘Avram the Hebrew,’ what would be more accurate is to read it as Avram who passed from the other side. Avram was always been in motion, since his departure from his birthplace in Ur, to his father’s home in Haran, to Canaan, to Egypt, and back to the Land of Israel - always coming from somewhere else, never being able to truly settle, to truly feel the security and comfort of a permanent, stable home.
From the very inception of our people, written deeply in our DNA, is that we are Ivri’im (the plural of ivri). We have always been in motion, and never - or at least rarely - of our own choosing. Twice we were expelled from the Land of Israel in ancient days. The second expulsion in the year 70 CE at the hands of the Romans spread the Ivri’im across the known world. Just as Abraham experienced in his journeys, sometimes we were welcomed with opened arms, sometimes we were reviled and chased away. Whether we stayed in a place for one, two or ten generations, history showed over and over again that we would never be welcome in a place forever. Eventually, the Ivri’im would be forced to move once again.
Homelessness, and the instability and the tragedy that often accompanied it, was deemed to be the root cause by many Jews in the 19th and 20th century. The Zionist movement was born to solve this problem, to repatriate the Ivri’im to their ancient homeland, to cure us of the curse of having to be perpetually in motion. The hope was that a nation-state of the Ivri’im and for the Ivri’im would finally grant respite from our wanders and simultaneously imbue Jews all over the world with pride and security.
I will be honest and say, and it pains me to say these words, in light of all we have seen these past three weeks, I am not sure that there will ever be or can ever be a completely safe, entirely protected resting place for these weary Ivri’im. In Israel, it is the genocidal Islamist ideologies that surround it and are prepared to carry out acts of savage violence to further the cause of a Middle East free of Jews. Around the world, it is an ocean of tiki torches in Charlottesville with shouts of “Jews will not replace us”; and it is crowds celebrating the murder and destruction of Hamas on city streets and college campuses and chants of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
For a thousand generations, we Ivri’im have been forced into motion, into moving from one place to another. And in these dark days, in which we are inundated day after day with images and messages of virulent hatred from people and places all over the world. Everything feels so fragile, as if the next time we will be forced to flee may be just around the corner. Forgive me for not being able to attribute this quote to the proper person, but it so accurately describes how I and so many of my Jewish sisters and brothers are feeling, “When the heart is down and the soul is heavy, the eyes can only speak the language of tears.” Or, in the words of the old folk song, “we are weary, let us rest.”
Yet through the fear, the pain, the exhaustion, the weight holding our souls down, we must not - we cannot - give into despair. We can look to Abraham as our example, placing our hopes in our faith and convictions. We can live knowing that there is justice and righteousness in the road we choose, even if we are marching on a path upon which only we have heard the call to walk. But we can, we will, we must emerge from this darkness with renewed conviction and dedication to our People and our future. It will not be simple. It will exhaust us, body and soul. But we can manage it. After all, we Ivri’im have been in motion for a very long time.