By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
October 19, 2002
In order to rescue his nephew Lot, Avra(ha)m becomes involved
in the first war recorded in the Torah. This is the war between the four kings
of eastern Mesopotamia (parts of modern-day Iraq and Iran) and the five kings
of the Sodom and Amorah plain (today, the Dead Sea in Israel). The four kings
join forces to conquer the territories and peoples around Sodom and Amorah,
choking off any avenue of escape. Then, all nine kings converge, and the five
kings are defeated. The four kings take all the spoils of their victory and
begin their return, traveling north to join the caravan routes that will take
them back to the East.
In the course of the conquest of Sodom, Lot is taken captive, and Avram
mobilizes his troops:
And they took Lot and his possessions
the son of Avram’s brother and they went, while he
(Lot) was living in Sodom. And the refugee came and told Avram the Hebrew (HA’IVRI),
while he (Avram) was residing in the groves of Mamre, the Emorite, the brother
of Eshkol and the brother of Aner, who were partners of Avram’s covenant. And
when Avram heard that his kinsman was captured, he armed his disciples, born in
his house, three hundred and eighteen, and he pursued as far as Dan (Bereishit
One striking feature of this narrative is the emphasis on seemingly superfluous
terms of identification: Lot, we are told, is the son of Avram’s brother, and
his kinsman, although we know this; Mamre, Eshkol and Aner are identified as
brothers and partners of Avram’s covenant; Avram’s 318-man staff are described
as his disciples, born in his house; and, central to this passage, Avram is the
Undoubtedly, the Torah is providing motivation, as well as foreshadowing
upcoming events. As Sforno (R. Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno, c. 1470-c.1550) points
out, the four kings single out Lot although they take many other captives as
well because of his connection to Avram: they hope to hold him for a steep
ransom, which they are convinced wealthy Avram would pay. The three Emorite
brothers will join Avram in his battle (see verse 24) because they are bound by
their covenant, and Avram’s disciples become his commando unit.
But, why is Avram defined here, for the first and only time, as the Hebrew (HA’IVRI)?
Clearly, the Torah wants to place this incident, and Avram’s involvement in it,
in a broader context. Midrash Bereishit Rabba (42:8) provides three views of the
derivation of the term IVRI:
R. Yehudah says, “All the world was on one side (EVER) and he
was on one side.” R. Nechemiah said, “He was one of the descendants of Ever.”
And the Sages say that, “He is from across (ME’EVER) the river [Euphrates], and
he spoke the Ivri language.”
All of these derivations highlight that Avram is out of place in
this war, whether because of ideology (R. Yehudah), race (R. Nechemiah), or
nationality and language (the Sages). Despite his prominence, Avram is branded
as an iconoclast, a foreigner, an intruder. The refugee who, according to
Rashi, is Og, who survived the battles to isolate the plain reports to Avram
as to an interloper, one whose family has no business in this war. Indeed, Avram
has a stronger connection to the four invading kings “from across the river”
than he has to the local population! Avram is a potential scapegoat.
The term Ivri has its origins in a branch of the family of Shem, son of Noach:
And to Shem, too, were born [children; he was) the father of all the children of
Ever . . . (Bereishit 10:21).
Ever was only Shem’s great-grandson (Bereishit 11:10-17; Divrei Ha’yamim I
1:18,19,25), but the children of Ever are the focus of the Torah’s narrative.
So begins the journey of a name and identity. Rashi (selecting from Bereishit
Rabba above) and Ramban (to 10:21) say that the Ivrim are “those of the other
side of the river.” Radak (R. David Kimchi, c. 1160-c. 1235) says that, alone of
the children of Ever, Avram is characterized as HA’IVRI because only he
continued Ever’s knowledge of one G-d, as well as speaking the Ivri language.
Sforno believes that the refugee did not know that Lot was related to Avram, but
only that they were both Ivrim, who recognize one G-d. Even though Lot was
living like one of the Sodomites, when there is a crisis, he is associated with
an Ivri, an outsider.
The next person to be called Ivri is Yosef, when the wife of Potifar wants to
present Yosef as a stranger and troublemaker (39:14,17). Ramban (to 40:15;
43:32) notes that the Ivrim were suspected by the Egyptians because, wherever
they lived, the Ivrim remained separate from the indigenous population.
Nevertheless, Yosef calls his homeland “the land of the Ivrim”, lending the
identity of outcasts to a whole country.
Then, in Shemot, it is as Ivrim that the Children of Israel are enslaved
(1:15,16,19; 2:6,7,11,13). Yet, Hashem proclaims Himself as “G-d of the Ivrim”
(3:18; 5:3; 7:16; 9:1). Ibn-Ezra, in a long analysis on 21:2, demonstrates that
Ivri means fellow-Israelite. The term Ivri changes, through the laws of the
Torah and the history of our people, from a designation of shame to one of pride
and brotherhood (Devarim 15:12; Shmuel I 4:6,9; 13:3,7,19; 14:11,21; 29:3;
Yirmiya 34:9,14; Yonah 1:9). What a difference from when Avram is first
stigmatized as HA’IVRI !
When war engulfs the region, each affected party Avram, Lot, Mamre, Eshkol,
Aner, Avram’s disciples is compelled by circumstances to choose which side he
is on. Avram is more than just an individual, and more than merely the uncle of
a captive; he is HA’IVRI. His connections become tribal, cultural and political.
Then as now, global events compel us to face who we are. When called, let us
proudly embrace the title which once singled out Avraham, and, like Yonah (1:9),
“I am an Ivri.”
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The first of Avraham's ten great tests is God’s command in Bereshit 12:1,
"Lech lecha/ Go from your land, your birthplace, from your father's house,
to the land asher areka/that I will show you." Avraham is being asked to
surrender his entire past. He does not hesitate; he follows the call of
Many years later, Avraham is faced with the tenth and last of his nisyonot.
In almost the same cadences, in chapter 22:2, Avraham hears: "Take your
son, your only son, Yitzhak, whom you love, and go (note that phrase, lech
lecha, again!) to the land of Moriah, and offer him up as a burnt offering
on one of the hills that I will show you (note the directive similar to
Here God demands of Avraham that he surrender not only his past, but also
his future. Once Yitzhak is gone, then the entire future of Avraham shall
disappear forever. But for Avraham, the prince of faith, God's wish is his
command. And thus he sets out to one of the hills that God will show him –
which turns out to be the future site of the Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem.
Both the first and the last trial are focused on the Land. For it is in
the Land that our past wanderings in the Diaspora come to an end, and it
is in the Land that our future redemption is assured; the very existence
of the Jewish people is bound up with this Land. Something as precious as
God's land is not easily inherited without some trial and some pain.
Acquiring it requires faith, trust, and spiritual courage. Not everyone is
an Avraham. But every generation has the opportunity to emulate the prince
of faith and trust by going to that Land, as only in Eretz Yisrael can the
Jew validate his past and assure his future.
This is why Rashi explains that the unusual phrase, "lech lecha,” means:
"for your own benefit and for your own good."
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, Jerusalem