Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

The Contribution of the Ivri Concept to Jewish Nationhood

Sefer Shemot marks an important transition in the development of Jewish history. While Sefer Bereishit focuses on the role of the individual avot in shaping the beginnings of kelal yisrael, it is Sefer Shemot which highlights the fate of the nation itself. Thus, at the very outset of the Sefer (1:1), we read of "benei yisrael" even as the small group of individuals who comprise the entire nation are delineated: "Ve-eileh shemot benei yisrael ha-baim mizraymah, et Yaakov ish u-beito bau". When the Torah chronicles the proliferation of kelal yisrael (1:7) and the harsh reaction it engendered (1:9,12,13) it refers to the nation as "benei yisrael".

Given this context, it is particularly interesting that in relating the counter response of the "meyaldot" the Torah abandons the term "yisrael", opting instead for the name "ivriyot" (1:15-22), previously used in connection with both Avraham and Yosef in Bereishit. Moreover, while the term appears 7 times scattered throughout Bereishit, it appears 8 times just in this concentrated section in the beginning of Shemot, notwithstanding the fact that "yisrael" is now a more obvious alternative, especially as the focus appears to be the total history of the nation!

To appreciate the significance of this phenomenon, we need to examine the context and determine the implications of this term. The Neziv argues that the fledgling nation had seriously mis-stepped by improperly integrating themselves into the broader society of Egypt- "va-temalei ha-aretz otam"-, revealing a serious misconception of their true mission. Even if they were also charged to impact upon the broader civilization, perhaps to be an "or la-goyim" (see Neziv intro. to Shemot), they were to accomplish this goal not by diluting their uniqueness or compromising their standards, but by projecting their principles and ideals in an unambiguous manner. They were challenged to build this particular nation without losing the qualities of courage, faith, and unswerving dedication to principle that normally characterize special individuals. The principled, heroic conduct of a group of remarkable individuals, the meyaldot, reflected this aspiration. By defying the cruel edict of the King of Egypt, the meyaldot exhibited extraordinary courage and exemplified the intense dedication to their fellow Jews and absolute commitment to yirat Hashem that must define Jewish nationhood even in pressured situations. Their response may have seemed stubborn and even irrational to others, but it reflected a critical component in Jewish nationhood, and was precisely the appropriate antidote to counter the excesses of "va-temalei ha-aretz otam", as perceived by the Neziv.

These indispensable qualities, first associated with Avraham, the "av hamon goyim" (father of the nation), are conveyed by the term "ivri" with which he is identified. When Avraham was approached by the "palit" to involve himself in a massive war just to save his nephew Lot, he is addressed as "ivri"(Bereishit 14:13, and see Seforno). The pasuk (Bereishit 14:13) emphasizes that Avraham acted despite the fact that Lot had willingly chosen a different fate- "ve-hu yoshev be-sedom". Avraham's response reflected not irrationality, but a principled and idealistic stance vis a vis his nephew who was in crisis. Hazal explain that the term "ivri" ("Avraham be-zad ehad ve-kol ha-olam be-zad aher") connotes Avraham's capacity to resist any pressure and his willingness to stand alone if need be for the sake of principle, notwithstanding his avowed mission to impact upon others. Apparently, the dimension of "ivri" had become somewhat neglected as other important components that contribute to the necessary complex balance of "yisrael" (symbolized by the complex "tiferet") developed.

The term "ivri" surfaces with respect to Yosef, as well, as he faces formidable challenges in a totally hostile and alien environment. His ability to maintain his uniqueness, project his ideals and withstand temptation and the pressures to conform which qualify him for a leadership role have their origin in his "ivri" roots. Ramban (Ber. 40:15) explains that this term always underscores the singular nature of the Jewish people and their unwillingness to conform or assimilate. He adds that this characteristic is an eternal legacy of the Jewish people: " hihziqu shemam ivrim shelo yitarvu be-amei ha-aratzot ha-kenanim ve-huhzaq hashem hazeh bekol zera yisrael leolam. Ve-zehu ha-taam be-Yosef she-amar ivri anokhi, velo sheyahziqu be-kenani."

It is noteworthy that the principled conduct of the meyaldot ha-ivriyot is depicted as a manifestation of "yirat Hashem" (Shemot 1:17, 21, and Onkeles), the ideal standard of which was established by none other than Avraham ha-ivri in the context of the akedah (Ber. 22:12 ), and in the episode with Avimelekh (Ber. 20:11). [The link between the "ivri" theme and yirat Hashem is evident with respect to Yonah, as well (Yonah 1:9): "Vayomer aleihem ivri anokhi ve-et Hashem elokei ha-shamayim ani yarei..."] The capacity of the meyaldot to reinforce the quality of "ivri" in the framework of "benei yisrael" established the "meyaldot ha-ivriyot" as the ideal foundation for future Jewish leadership in the form of keter kehunah, leviyah and keter malkhut- "va-yaas la-hem batim" (Sotah 11b).

The quality of "ivri" is reflected particularly in the early life of Moshe Rabbeinu, the penultimate Jewish leader. As an infant, he is already identified by Paaroh's daughter by this designation (Shemot 2:6-7)- "va-tomer mi-yaldei ha-ivrim zeh". The commentators ask how she was able to determine his background, particularly according to the view that the decree was extended to all male children in the realm. Alternatively, if the law was limited to Jewish males, what is significant about her proclamation? It is possible, however, that it was her recognition of Moshe's innate "ivri" capacity that is meaningful according to both perspectives. Hazal suggest that she discerned Moshe's special status by the fact that the infant was unwilling to nurse from a non-Jewish source, reflecting an innate commitment to Jewish uniqueness. According to some mefarshim, it is also possible that she identified his origins through the tevah in which he was placed, the design of which reflected the qualities of the "ivrim". Hazal explain that the tevah was constructed to insulate Moshe from the harsh realities and influences of the external environment and in a way that reflected special sensitivity to his personal spiritual needs. The contrast to tevat Noah, whose primary purpose was merely survival, is especially noteworthy. Thus, the Torah emphasizes "va-tahmera ba-hemer u-ba-zefet". Hazal interpret that the zefet was on the outside in this tevah "kedai shelo yariah oto zadik reiah ra shel zefet".

"Vayigdal Moshe vayeze el ehav vayare ish mizri makeh ish ivri me-ehav"(2:11). The young Moshe discovers his own link to the Jewish people when his "ivri" perspective is triggered by two incidents in which the fates of individual Jews are put in jeopardy in a hostile environment. His response to the first crisis follows an awareness that Jews have no other recourse but their commitment and loyalty to each other (see Seforno's comment on "ivri")- "vayifen koh va-khoh vayare ki ein ish". In the second occurrence-" ve-hineh shenei anashim ivrim nizim"-, Moshe is shocked that two "ivrim" could interact in such a manner. According to some interpretations, his conclusion -"akhen noda hadavar"- constitutes a begrudging acknowledgement that the "ivri" component, latent in every Jew, is, alas, not always manifest. This recognition is to play an important role in Moshe's approach to his future leadership challenge.

Upon encountering Hashem, Moshe inquires about Hashem's nature and also queries how he should represent Hashem to the nation: "ve-amru li mah shemo...mah omar aleihem"(3:13). Rashi cites Hazal's comment that Hashem emphasized that specifically his quality of empathy (3:14)- "imam anokhi be-zarah" and not a theological statement should form the basis for the renewed relationship with the nation. Moreover, He instructed that Moshe introduce the request to Paaroh by invoking the "ivri" theme (3:18): "va-amartem eilav Hashem elokei ha-ivriiyim niqrah aleinu..." In fact, Moshe and Aharon initially took a different route(5:1):" vayomru el Paaroh koh amar Hashem elokei yisrael shalah et ami." Indeed, this reference to "elokei yisrael" proved ineffective, as Paaroh immediately responded by dismissing this perspective: "Vayomer Paaroh mi Hashem asher eshma be-kolo leshalah et yisrael; lo yadati et Hashem ve-gam et yisrael lo ashaleiah." Upon hearing the reformulated demand invoking the initial ivri theme (5:3)"va-yomru elokei ha-ivrim niqra aleinu"-, Paaroh was forced to adopt different tactics in his struggle with benei yisrael. Paaroh's memorable encounter with the "meyaldot ha-ivriyot" and perhaps the reports of Moshe's response to the fate of his fellow "ivrim" ("akhen noda ha-davar") precluded him from simply ignoring this theme.

The names "yisrael" and "benei yisrael" dominate Biblical and post- Biblical Jewish history. Yet, precisely in the formative stages of the development of and as "yisrael" it was critical to reassert the roots of the nation which could be traced to the unyielding idealism of Avraham ha-ivri, as manifest in the conduct of the meyaldot and in the persona of Moshe Rabbenu.

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