By Rabbi Leah Berkowitz
While the English name of the book of Exodus hints at the miraculous redemption contained therein, its Hebrew name, Shemot, feels more commonplace.
Shemot, or “names,” refers to the list of Jacob’s sons that came to Egypt at the end of Genesis. A list of names might not seem significant, but what we are called can have a great impact on how people see us, and how we see ourselves.
To paraphrase the poet Zelda, we have names our parents give us and names we give to ourselves. Often, we are called names by the people around us, for better or for worse.
In this week’s Torah portion, we encounter Shifra and Puah, the meyaledot ha-ivriot, midwives to the Hebrew women. They courageously disobey the Pharaoh’s orders to kill all newborn Hebrew boys. When called to account for their behavior, they respond that the Hebrew women, the ivriot, are like animals: They give birth too fast for the midwives to interfere.
The name the midwives are called here — ivriot or “Hebrews” — is significant. Elsewhere, we call ourselves b’nai Yisrael, the children of Jacob/Israel, who wrestled with God. Later, we call ourselves Yehudim, descendants of Judah, whose name means “I will thanks.”
But ivri (masculine singular of ivriot) is a different kind of name. Ivri is what others call us, particularly when we are the minority. Abraham’s Amorite neighbors call him ha-ivri (Genesis 14:13). Joseph is called ivri when the wife of Potiphar accuses him of attacking her (Gen. 39: 14, 17), and when he is held captive in an Egyptian prison (Gen. 40:15, 41:12). Years later, Joseph calls his brothers ivrim, saying that, as proper Egyptian, he cannot dine with them (Gen. 43: 32). Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh as representatives of the God of the ivrim (Ex. 3:18, 5:3, 7:16, 9:1, 13, 10:3).
Ivri is not always used in a positive way, which might have to do with its origins. In several ancient Near Eastern languages, hapiru or habiru can mean anything from “dust” to “trespasser,” reflecting the diminished status of an outsider. It speaks of “otherness,” even to the point of being untouchable.
Ivri is a word that others uses to define us, and not always in a good way. But if we dig a little deeper, we might reclaim this word as a way to define ourselves.
In Genesis Rabbah, the rabbis argue over why Abraham was called ivri. Rabbi Nehemia says ivri means that he descended from a man named Eber. Other rabbis suggest ivri means that Abram came from me-ever ha-nahar, from across the river. But Rabbi Yehuda has a different opinion: Ivri, he says, means that the whole world was on one side (ever) and Abram was on the other side (Gen. Rabbah 42:8).
Ivri then is not simply an ethnic marker, but a descriptor of Abram’s character. When the whole world was worshipping idols, Abram served God alone. When God calls upon him to go forth into the unknown, Abram sets off without hesitation. Being ivri is so deeply ingrained in him that he even stands in opposition to God, in defense of the innocent people in Sodom and Gomorrah.
Like Abraham, the midwives, Shifra and Puah, also proved themselves worthy of the title ivriot. Not only do they refuse to follow Pharaoh’s order, they draw upon his perception of the ivriot as different to dismiss Pharaoh’s concerns.
While everyone in their society, Hebrew and Egyptian alike, accepts that oppression and infanticide were business as usual, the midwives risk their own lives to save the Hebrew infants. Without this first courageous crossing over, our people could not have crossed over from Egyptian slavery, and later into freedom in the Promised Land.
This word ivri, as it is understood in the midrash, has much to teach us about how we understand our identity. We define ourselves through genealogy, who our parents and grandparents were, the values and traditions they passed on to us. We define ourselves through geography, where we come from, where we have traveled to, and what we carry with us from place to place.
Who we are is not merely shaped by where we come from: It is shaped by where we stand today.
Throughout history, our people have been cast as outsiders, relegated to the margins of society through no choice of our own. But we have also been known for our willingness to stand on one side, even when the whole world is standing on the other side: through commitment to our faith, the preservation of our unique traditions and our passion for pursuing justice.
May we, like our namesakes, have the courage to live in the world today as ivrim and ivriot, the ones who cross over to stand on the other side.
Rabbi Leah Berkowitz is the rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.