Jonathan Muskat
Jonathan Muskat

Avraham the “Ivri”

I remember as a child reading about the stories Avraham Avinu, how he revolutionized the idea of monotheism, how he challenged the superpower of the world, Nimrod, and how this almost cost him his life.  Avraham was forced to flee, but, according to the Midrash, he attracted a lot of followers in Charan.  He traveled to the Promised Land, and he began to preach the word of God undeterred by anyone and anything.  Avraham was a man with a mission.  Avraham was a hero and the Torah’s description of him as Avram Ha’Ivri, Avram the “Ivri,” so perfectly highlights his true identity.

A Midrash cites a three-way debate as to the import of this description.  Rabbi Nehemiah understands that this description refers to the fact that he was a descendant of Ever, and that’s why he was called an “Ivri.”  Other Rabbis understand that this description refers to the fact that he was “mai’ever ha’nahar” – from the other side of the Jordan River.  He was a foreigner and he spoke “ivri,” the language of those who live east of the Jordan River.  However, the interpretation that I found most compelling was that of Rabbi Yehudah, who explained that the whole world was “mai’ever echad v’hu mei’ever echad.”  The whole world was on one side and Avraham was on another side.  Avraham had the courage to be different than everyone else.  This description of Avraham as an “ivri” filled me with a sense of pride about what it means to be a Jew, that we are not moved by cultural values and norms if they are antithetical to Torah values, because we are descendants of Avraham Avinu.  The whole world can think one way, but we are “Ivriyim” – we think differently and we are proud of our differences.

But then as I got a little older, I began to wonder about the context of this description.  When is Avraham described as an “ivri?”  Specifically in the context of the battle of the four kings against the five kings.  If the message of this description is that Avraham is a man of spiritual courage, that he thinks so differently than everyone else, I would have assumed that Avraham would have been described this way when God told him to leave his homeland or when Avraham was commanded to sacrifice his son.  Yet, rather surprisingly, Avraham is described as an “ivri” specifically when he wages war against the four kings to rescue his nephew Lot.

Perhaps Avraham’s description of an “ivri” is not only about what he believed, but it’s also about how he went about spreading his belief.  Avraham, the ultimate man of kindness and peace, went against his very nature when he fought the four kings, but he did so in order to rescue Lot.  After he defeated the four kings, he could have done when any king would have done at that time.  He could have celebrated his victory by becoming king over the entire land, the land that God promised him and  he could have forced everyone in the land to serve him and more importantly, to serve God.  The winner gets the spoils, and for Avraham, the man of faith, the spoils may not have been gold and silver, but the spoils may have been a nation under his control that will serve God and become a beacon of ethical monotheism.  Avraham had the opportunity to force his values on others, but that was not his way.

When I was younger, I thought of Avraham as an “ivri,” being different, only in regard to his beliefs.  Now when I think of Avraham as an “ivri,” being different, I also think of how he conveys those beliefs to others, not with force, but with love.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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