Shaya Cohen -


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Hebrews in the World

The story is told of a Jewish grandmother on a beach, screaming for someone – anyone – to help, because her hapless grandson has been caught in the undertow and is being swept out to sea.

A brave young man runs forward. Risking his own life, he dives into the ocean, swims out, and retrieves the waterlogged child. With his last burst of energy, our hero helps the child expel the ingested seawater and regain consciousness. And then he collapses on the beach.

The old woman sniffs. “He had a hat.”

We Jews like jokes. We have been telling them since the dawn of our people, because jokes somehow are better at catching precisely the right spirit than reams of academic explication. “What?!” the people fling at Moses upon finding themselves in the wilderness, “There weren’t enough graves in Egypt?” Humor may age, but sarcasm is timeless.

In recently studying the Torah carefully, we realized that there is a single word for this kind of chutzpah, a single word that really captures Jewish character, ambitions, achievements and failures. That word is the root for “Hebrew”, ivri. Because its usage in the text, across the entire text (182 appearances!), describes every aspect of a people who contain so many rewarding – and annoying – characteristics. All of them bundled out of this one word. (For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the root word henceforth, as ivr.) And this word captures it all, the raw character of the Jewish people, warts and all.

IVR as Movement – Crossing

“Crossing” is the most commonly – and commonly understood meaning of ivr in the text. The Torah is full of descriptions of physical movements, especially in the last book, that use ivr as the verb for moving from place to place. Most prominently, Avram crosses (ivr) into Canaan, and Moses pleads with G-d: “Let me, I pray, cross over (ivr) and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.” Both bring up the classic “Wandering Jew” archetype.

Avram sees a prophetic vision of the Exodus using this same word. In the Covenant Between the Parts where G-d tells Avraham that his descendants will serve another nation, and will be delivered by G-d:

When the sun set and it was very dark, there appeared a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed (ivr) between those pieces.

And much later in the text, the imagery and language echoes:

You know well that we dwelt in the land of Egypt and that we passed (ivr) through the midst of various other nations;

Wandering is part of our tribal DNA. But there is so very much more to how the word ivr is used in the text – and indeed, those examples help us better understand both Avram and Moses in their journeys.

IVR as Change

Ivr is first used in the Torah when G-d decides to stop the flooding of the world:

God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark, and God caused (ivr) a wind to blow across the earth, and the waters subsided.

The word ivr is connected to change! And not just random change: change that is sparked by thought and conscious decision. Changes to the world that lead away from death and toward life. Change that halts what is otherwise seen as inevitable (the end of all life from the flood), and starts to move things in a positive direction. Indeed, the use of the word in the text constantly hearkens back to different facets of this meaning.

The very next time the word ivr is found in the Torah, it is when Avram and Sarai enter the land of Canaan: “Abram passed through (ivr) the land as far as the site of Shechem, at the terebinth of Moreh.” This is a sparking event in the Torah, just like when G-d stopped the flooding. In both cases, nothing very discernable happened at first, but the fuse had been lit, history forever altered from one single act. Those actions triggered the rest of history. And in both cases, the actors who committed the act of ivr were not acting instinctively, the way a person usually behaves: instead, they were consciously acting in ways that are different than how a person naturally acts.

This ties back into what makes a Jew both so effective in the world, but also so very annoying to everyone else: Jews don’t stay put. We move around, crossing (ivr) barriers of all kinds. In the Torah, Jacob ivrs rivers and boundaries, he ivrs the sheep when he sorts them out for selective breeding. When he flees from Lavan, the text uses the word ivr. It gets so annoying that when Lavan catches up to Jacob, he underlines this very point:

This mound shall be witness and this pillar shall be witness that I am not to cross (ivr) to you past this mound, and that you are not to cross (ivr) to me past this mound and this pillar.

Lavan does not trust people who refuse to stay put – people who cross barriers, who ivr. He prefers boundaries that stay, and people who respect them. It is non-Jews who put up walls and respect them, non-Jews who crave stability above all else. Consider the Chinese and Egyptians in their river valleys for thousands of years, contentedly living out their days with little or no change from generation to generation – indeed, for thousands of years. In such a world and in those cultures, people who are not desperate for food stay where they are. Lavan’s words clearly reinforce and seek solidity.

Jews, on the other hand, are the people who ivr. I think our behavior unsettles other people in no small part because the way in which a Jew acts – always pushing, always moving – doesn’t really make sense to them. Ivr in the Torah is not driven by physical needs (such as would prompt a normal (non-Jewish) person to migrate), but by a spiritual hunger or restlessness. Most people only change when they have to. Jews change because we can.

Jacob sends messengers with presents for Esau to try to change Esau’s mind. We know this in part because the word used for sending those messengers is also ivr. It is all about changing the inevitable, altering the outcome. The word is used throughout the story. When Jacob’s family meets Esau and his armed men, Jacob once more seizes the initiative, and he ivrs. “He himself went on (ivr) ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother.” Jacob, the ultimate change agent, the forefather who ivrs more than anyone else in the Torah, is the person at which the family branches out into a tribe and then a nation, a nation named in the Torah after Jacob/Israel: the Children of Israel. Jacob overcame and crossed, ivr, every barrier – physical topographical as well as familial and spiritual. Jacob imitated G-d, who used ivr during the flood to change history and for the better, for life and the possibility of physical and spiritual growth in the world.

Note that there is a wrinkle here as well. Jacob, with whom ivr is used the most, stops having that word associated with him as soon as peace is made with Esau. Then he becomes much more passive – for four entire chapters the word is not found in the text at all, and then the baton seems to have been passed, because it is only other people who then ivr. Jacob, no longer in a strange land or in fear of his life, no longer seems forced to innovate, to change, or to force change around him. The word never again is used to describe Jacob’s actions. (This may also help explain antisemitism, along lines similar to those I have explained before: it is fear that keeps us focused on being Jewish in the first place – both in customs and in spirit. The pressures Jacob was under caused him to lead the world in ivr. When those pressures eased, Jacob did, too. Which helps explain why G-d keeps pressure on His people; doing so delivers results. It compels us to ivr.)

IVR as Identity

Jews, from Avram to the present day, are often identified as being separate from the societies in which we live, quietly refusing to conform. Jews are called “Hebrews” – Ivrim in the text. (The word is a self-fulfilling description, since the Jews who seek to assimilate have, generation after generation, largely managed to do so, so only those who resist assimilation, who ivr, remain). Nevertheless, this ability to remain distinct in other nations is a well-recognized feature of the Jewish people in general – it is a core part of our reputation. It is also part of acting with ivr.

Even when we appeal to G-d we do so by pointing out that we are being true to that first calling to Avram that led to his act of ivr when he entered the land: “Lech Lecho”, “Go for yourself.” When Jacob prays in a night of fear before confronting an angry Esau, he says to G-d: “I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed (ivr) this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.” Jacob is telling G-d that he explicitly identifies as one who crosses (ivr), as Avram did when G-d told Jacob’s grandfather to “go out” on nothing more than G-d’s say-so, the inheritor of the mantle of Avram. Indeed, they both entered the land at the same point, coming in through the Shechem gap in the hills to the West of the Jordan River. Jacob seeks the same blessings that his grandfather received, and for the same reason: “I crossed.” We know this is what G-d wants of us. Ivr is what Jews/Hebrews, do, and what we do defines who we are.

IVR at the Heart of Commerce

The Torah (as well as history) associates Jews with money – Avram is the first person in the Torah to accumulate money. He is also the first person to buy anything (Gen. 17), and he buys both people and property. Later in the Torah the word ivr explictly means a transfer of property: “The plea of Zelophechad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer (ivr) their father’s share to them. …Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer (ivr) his property to his daughter.’”

Jews using money makes sense, of course, because going from place to place, ivr, involves trade. Merchants travel, crossing (ivr) rivers and frontiers. They, too, make change wherever they go – spreading goods into new places, and, through their market knowledge, setting the price at which people sell their goods. Trade and economic activity are not that different from G-d withdrawing the flood waters or Avram entering the land: mixing people and goods up and trading them is a major wealth creation engine for the world. Maximizing economic activity in turn leads to more food, more creature comforts – ultimately the potential for more life. Whether seen as a negative or a positive, Jews have always been intrinsically linked with both money and commerce, at the heart of transactions wherever they are found – at every link in the transaction within the legal, corporate and mercantile aspects of trade.

When Avraham negotiates to buy Ephron’s cave, the text tells us: “Abraham accepted Ephron’s terms. Abraham paid out to Ephron the money that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites—four hundred shekels of silver at the ivr merchants’ rate.” The “ivr” seems superfluous at first read: why is ivr connected to an exchange rate?

I think it is because a core aspect of a trader’s world is that traders move beyond unwieldy barter and conduct business using money – so Avraham pays for the people and the burial cave using money instead of goods-in-kind. Money is a very useful tool, allowing for much more rapid commerce with a minimum of transactional friction. In the Torah, the role of the ivr is first linked to Jews. And it is no coincidence that the Jews are associated with money, commerce and trade, both in the Torah and throughout Jewish history.

Jews Seeking to Facilitate ivr and Change

For Jews, it is not even necessary to be the change agents ourselves: we are more than happy to facilitate it wherever we are. Facilitating trade or change is akin to being involved in commercial transactions (as an agent or lawyer) without being one of the principal parties.

When the three men appear to Avraham as he sat in his tent, he runs to them: “If it please you, do not go on past (ivr) your servant.” Why does he stop them? Avraham sees people engaging in activity that he himself approves of and identifies with – moving and changing – and he seeks to support that activity! So he says, “And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on (ivr) —seeing that you have come (ivr) your servant’s way.” Avraham wants to be where the action is, supporting it in any way that he can. He is more than willing to be a fulcrum for others who seek to change the world, in the same way that Jews facilitate trade and commerce the world over. We instinctively see a value in always being in the middle of a deal, or indeed, any action. Enabling others is inherent to our identification as a Jew, as an ivri.

These men go on to tell Avraham and Sarah that they will have a son, and then the men/angels go onto Sodom and Gomorrah on a mission to destroy the cities. They are indeed “change agents,” actively altering the world. Avraham saw that intention in them, and sought to support it, even though he did not know the nature of their mission in advance.

Our voices similarly can be used to assist others in changing – because ivr is, first and foremost, about the mindset one has:

Moses thereupon had this proclamation made (ivr) throughout the camp: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” So the people stopped bringing.


Then you shall sound (ivr) the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month—the Day of Atonement—you shall have the horn sounded (ivr) throughout your land.

In both cases, ivr helps others to facilitate change, just as Avraham sought to succor the weary men/angels who were engaged in their mission of ivr. Both a proclamation and a shofar blast help change what listeners think.

IVR as an Insult

Ivr is not necessarily a positive attribute or action. In the mouths of non-Jews, the label is clearly meant to both describe and denigrate. A non-Jew refers to a Hebrew in the text, and means “someone who changes things that ought to be left alone.” Jews are pushy – the Torah tells us so. Avram immigrates, ivr, into the land of Canaan – a land that is not his. Potiphar’s wife refers to Joseph as ivr when she falsely accuses him of trying to seduce her. Everyone knows Jews are pushy. True then, true now. Joseph is clearly an ivr, a climber wherever he finds himself. Indeed, when Joseph is appointed viceroy by Pharoah the very first thing he does is ivr the land – he crosses all of it, surveying, planning, getting ahead of the famine. And when that famine comes, Joseph displays enormous (and unnecessary) chutzpah by forcibly repopulating the land of Egypt, moving everyone around. The verb used for that act? Ivr.

In the eyes of others, especially Egyptians, the Jews are always called ivr, and it is clearly a perjorative – the Torah tells us the Egyptians considered even socially mingling with ivr people to be taboo: “They served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves; for the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews (ivr), since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians.” Many years later, the midwives who mock Pharoah and ignore his orders are also identified as ivr. It is a consistent, if often counterproductive Jewish talent: we annoy people, because we keep pushing. Others react by excluding and separating themselves from Jews; our very nature represents a threat to their well-ordered societies.

Of course, there is a flip side to being pushy. Jews get stuff done. That is why Potiphar promoted Joseph in the first place: he delivered results. Joseph also delivered for Pharoah, and while the repopulation and enslavement of Egypt was probably not a good idea overall, it may well have best-served Pharaoh’s interests. Jewish success is a historical fact as well, and I think it is identified with this aspect of our inherited personality, with ivr.

IVR: Sinning

There is a whole different side of this same word – from the downsides of change. When one changes too much, or, more commonly in the text, when one changes in the wrong direction.

This is because the word for committing a sin is also ivr. Key examples:

But Moses said, “Why do you transgress (ivr) G-d’s command?

Balaam replied to Balak’s officials, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary (ivr) to the command of my G-d.

If there is found among you, in one of the settlements that your G-d is giving you, a man or woman who has affronted your G-d and transgressed (ivr) the Covenant—

I have neither transgressed (ivr) nor neglected any of Your commandments.

See how versatile this word is within the text! It makes it quite clear that the attribute of change, even though it is a name for the Jewish people, is certainly not always a good thing. Indeed, it can represent death directly:

Do not allow any of your offspring to be offered up (ivr) to Molech.

Let no one be found among you who consigns (ivr) a son or daughter to the fire.

The idea of “change” is a constant with this word. But change is clearly not always good or productive or right.

IVR Unleashed: Destruction and Death

Indeed, this change can be even more dramatic than merely transgression or even sin. Ivr can mean going out to kill:

Know then this day that none other than your G-d is crossing (ivr) at your head, a devouring fire; it is [G-d] who will wipe them out—subduing them before you, that you may quickly dispossess and destroy them, as G-d promised you.

He said to them, “Thus says G-d, the G-d of Israel: Each of you put sword on thigh, go (ivr) back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay sibling, neighbor, and kin.”

For that night I will go through (ivr) the land of Egypt and strike down every [male] first-born in the land of Egypt, both human and beast;

For G-d, when going through (ivr) to smite the Egyptians, will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and G-d will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.

How Much is Too Much?

Jacob, well after he himself is no longer associated with the word ivr, made it quite clear that there is such a thing as too much ivr. When he blesses/curses Simeon and Levi, Jacob says:

Cursed be their anger so fierce,
And their ivr so strong.
I will divide them in Jacob,
Scatter them in Israel.

The potency of Simeon and Levi is so great that they need to be diluted within the rest of the people! This is what transpires with Levi when they are settled in the land; the tribe is spread out across the land and within the people, seeking to maximize influence without having too many of the tribe living in any one place. Which suggests that it is possible for someone to be, well, too Jewish.

Joseph seemingly also acts in a similar way: the Egyptians will not eat with him because he is an ivri. Joseph seems to turn the tables – the Torah tells us that Joseph uses this same verb to forcibly relocate everyone in Egypt, moving everyone around. This was an act that seems entirely unnecessary – it looks like ivr for its own sake, as opposed to being for a holy or good principle. The Egyptians were the ultimate passive people, and Joseph forces them all to move. But he does not do so for any apparent higher benefit. Arguably the Jewish treatment at the hands of the Egyptians is a result of Joseph indiscriminately forcing change on others.

The Way to Temper ivr: Responsibility

There is a related word to ivr that shares the same root word and letters – but it seems to contain everything that ivr, with the emphasis on forcing change regardless of consequences, is lacking. This word is baavur, and it tells us what Jews are supposed to have to go along with our inclination to change everything we can lay our hands on. This word is always tied to responsibility, for consequences. For example:

To Adam [G-d] said, “Because you did as your wife said and ate of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’
Cursed be the ground baavur of you; By hard labor shall you eat of it All the days of your life:

The ground bears the responsibility for our actions. Our willingness to transgress will always have consequences.

But responsibility can also be positive! When Avram goes to Egypt, he says to his wife:

Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me baavur of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.”

Avram begs Sarai to be responsible for him, to save his life! And she does! The text says:

And baavur of her, it went well with Abram; he acquired sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels.

Avram lives, and he acquires things as well. This is quite remarkable: that Sarai could save Avram’s life and materially benefit him suggests that her taking responsibility for his life is very powerful. Indeed, this is the first time in the Torah that any person takes responsibility, baavur, for someone else. And the text makes it clear that even if Avram was wrong to ask his wife to lie, there is an inherent value in her willingness to take responsibility for him.

G-d wants His people – all people – to be responsible for each other. Ivr can be good – but to really hit the mark, it needs to be twinned with responsibility, with maturity. Indeed, ivr in its developed form is not merely about moving, or physical change: it is about changing our minds, how and what we think!

So baavur in the Torah is also about the opportunity to learn new things, to understand G-d’s role in the world:

For this time I will send all My plagues upon your person, and your courtiers, and your people, in order (baavur) that you may know that there is none like Me in all the world.

Nevertheless I have spared you for this purpose: in order (baavur) to show you My power, and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world.

And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because (baavur) of what G-d did for me when I went free from Egypt.’

And later in the Torah, the word is used as a term of enrollment, of a person belonging to the nation (baavur) of Israel, as opposed to merely a tribe of Hebrews (Ivrim).

This is what everyone who is entered (baavur) in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight.

Everyone who is entered (baavur) in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give G-d’s offering:

Baavur is the culmination, the mature fulfillment of that elemental desire to ivr, to change things for the sake of change. This is always a challenge for anyone who seeks to serve G-d: to what extent are we willing to be brave, to go against others in our desire for ivr? And are we always trying to be cognizant of the consequences of our actions?

In some respects, the tension echoes the gap between those who love unfettered freedom (ivr), and those who appreciate that freedom without responsibility and consequences is mere libertinism (baavur).

We still need people who are willing to go against the flow, who are willing to act decisively and cross boundaries of every kind. But those people also need to embrace the responsibility that is supposed to be paired with that kind of superpower.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]

Post Notes:

• Jews are not the only traders named in the Torah!

When Midianite traders passed by (ivr), they pulled Joseph up out of the pit. They sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who brought Joseph to Egypt.”

These traders also change things, just as others associated with ivr do: all of history is changed by their action, whether we would consider it good or not. Midianites are also descended from Avraham – the first man to ivr in the text

• Change, of course, can be for all manner of things. From physical objects:

Any article that can withstand fire—these you shall pass through (ivr) fire and they shall be pure, except that they must be purified with water of lustration; and anything that cannot withstand fire you must pass through (ivr) water.

To covenants with G-d:

To enter (ivr) into the covenant of your G-d, which your G-d is concluding with you this day.

• The killing of the first-born of Egypt (which uses ivr) mirrors the setting aside of the first-born for all time:

You shall set apart (ivr) for G-d every first issue of the womb: every male firstling that your cattle drop shall be G-d’s.

• When G-d is angry at Moses for being too pushy about entering the Land of Canaan, the text tells us,

But G-d was wrathful (ivr) with me on your account and would not listen to me. G-d said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again!”

This certainly accentuates the core point that ivr is not a good thing in itself, and that in excess, it leads to death – whether at the hands of Simeon and Levi, or G-d Himself.

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