We might be forgiven for not noticing this last week, but the phrase is so familiar, it is in fact a, if not the, household name! In the dramatic closing verses of Vayeshev, Joseph, after solving the dreams of the butler, entreats him to remember him and work for his release (40:15) ;
כִּֽי־גֻנֹּ֣ב גֻּנַּ֔בְתִּי מֵאֶ֖רֶץ הָעִבְרִ֑ים וְגַם־פֹּה֙ לֹא־עָשִׂ֣יתִֽי מְא֔וּמָה כִּֽי־שָׂמ֥וּ אֹתִ֖י בַּבּֽוֹר׃
For I was kidnapped (or stolen) from the land of the Hebrews; nor have I done anything here that they should have put me in the dungeon.”
The double use of the word stolen, perhaps sheds light on the conundrum of who actually bought and sold him the Midianites or Yishmaelim, this might suggest both. I digress, the phrase (used for the first time) that begs our attention is the Land of the Ivrim. The term describes home; – not the Land of Israel or where Israel (Jacob and family live) as we would be right to anticipate, as that too is now a well known name, rather Ivrim. – The Land of those from the “other side”.
The expression is originally coined to describe Abram who came from “the other side”. It is used by an “outsider” to describe the outsider. During the battle between the four kings against the five kings back in the portion of Lech Lecha, Lot, Abram’s nephew, is kidnapped and…(Bereishit14:13)
וַיָּבֹא֙ הַפָּלִ֔יט וַיַּגֵּ֖ד לְאַבְרָ֣ם הָעִבְרִ֑י וְהוּא֩ שֹׁכֵ֨ן בְּאֵֽלֹנֵ֜י מַמְרֵ֣א הָאֱמֹרִ֗י אֲחִ֤י אֶשְׁכֹּל֙ וַאֲחִ֣י עָנֵ֔ר וְהֵ֖ם בַּעֲלֵ֥י בְרִית־אַבְרָֽם׃
A fugitive (or refugee) brought the news to Abram the Hebrew, who was dwelling at the terebinths of Mamre the Amorite, kinsman of Eshkol and Aner, these being Abram’s allies.
The wife of Potiphar uses it (last week) in a demeaning fashion accusing Joseph (the outsider) of trying to seduce her (39:14);
וַתִּקְרָ֞א לְאַנְשֵׁ֣י בֵיתָ֗הּ וַתֹּ֤אמֶר לָהֶם֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר רְא֗וּ הֵ֥בִיא לָ֛נוּ אִ֥ישׁ עִבְרִ֖י לְצַ֣חֶק בָּ֑נוּ בָּ֤א אֵלַי֙ לִשְׁכַּ֣ב עִמִּ֔י וָאֶקְרָ֖א בְּק֥וֹל גָּדֽוֹל׃
she called out to her servants and said to them, “Look, he had to bring us a Hebrew to dally with us! This one came to lie with me; but I screamed loud.
This week after forgetting Joseph, the reinstated butler is reminded of him through Pharaoh’s distressing dreams. He recalls (41:12) the “outsider”
וְשָׁ֨ם אִתָּ֜נוּ נַ֣עַר עִבְרִ֗י עֶ֚בֶד לְשַׂ֣ר הַטַּבָּחִ֔ים וַנְּ֨סַפֶּר־ל֔וֹ וַיִּפְתָּר־לָ֖נוּ אֶת־חֲלֹמֹתֵ֑ינוּ אִ֥ישׁ כַּחֲלֹמ֖וֹ פָּתָֽר׃
A Hebrew youth was there with us, a servant of the chief steward; and when we told him our dreams, he interpreted them for us, telling each of the meaning of his dream.
The term becomes a central motif in the book of Shemot, describing the people who become persecuted and oppressed as outsiders. The opening few bars of the saga describes the king (not the butler) who forgets Joseph. He orders the outsider midwives to kill the outsider boys. 1:15,16
וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת… בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן֙ אֶת־הָֽעִבְרִיּ֔וֹת וּרְאִיתֶ֖ן עַל־הָאָבְנָ֑יִם אִם־בֵּ֥ן הוּא֙ וַהֲמִתֶּ֣ן אֹת֔וֹ וְאִם־בַּ֥ת הִ֖יא וָחָֽיָה
The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives…“When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birth-stool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.”
In one of the most astonishing dialogues between God and Moshe at the burning bush, God instructs him to tell the Jews that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has sent him on the mission to ultimately free them from Egypt. Three verses later, in the instructions or script to be said to Pharaoh, God poetically and fittingly re describes Himself not as the God of the patriarchs rather as אֱלֹהֵ֤י הָֽעִבְרִיִּים The God of the Outsiders.
The theme continues to the heartbreaking culmination of Moshe’s life. God’s final instruction is staggering. Moshe is given a peak of the promised land that he will not get to, – but from where? Har Haverim a mischievous play on the word Me’ever? – the mountain of the outsider. (Devarim 32:49)
עֲלֵ֡ה אֶל־הַר֩ הָעֲבָרִ֨ים הַזֶּ֜ה הַר־נְבֹ֗ו אֲשֶׁר֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מֹואָ֔ב אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֣י יְרֵחֹ֑ו וּרְאֵה֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן אֲשֶׁ֨ר אֲנִ֥י נֹתֵ֛ן לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לַאֲחֻזָּֽה׃
Moshe is able to get a glimpse – from the other side. This quality of our identity is so fundamental to who we are; עבדים היינו ועברים אנחנו we were slaves and hopefully remain with the capacity to truly empathize with the outsider as that remains core to our very being.- We are too!
Chanukah like Sukkot invites us out, over to the other side, going public, being vulnerable, in order to enlighten, show compassion and truly be as one with the Ivri.