When G-d first instructs Moshe to confront Pharaoh, he is told to tell him that “the G-d of the עברים/Hebrews, happened upon us. And now please let us go...” (שמות ג יח)
Although Jews are previously identified in the Torah as עברים in the plural, and עברי in the singular, this is the first time G-d is described as the ‘G-d of the עברים/Hebrews’.
In the prelude to the three plagues of דבר/Plague, ברד/Hail, and ארבה/Locusts, Moshe again is told to warn Pharaoh in the name of the ‘G-d of the Hebrews’.
Elsewhere Moshe speaks of the ‘G-d of Israel’. Why in regard to these plagues is G-d associated with the Hebrews specifically?
This appellation relates to the very first Hebrew, our illustrious ‘father’, אברהם העברי, Avraham the Hebrew. This connotes his having stood בעבר אחד, on ‘one side’ against the entire world who all opposed him. His descendants who hopefully follow suit, thus also earn the title עברים/ Hebrews.
The Midrash, though, offers an alternative explanation, alleging that עברים is a contraction of the two words: עברו ים, they passed through the sea, a reference to their miraculous crossing the ים סוף, the Sea of Reeds.
Isn’t that an event that had yet to transpire? How could that be the source of this term that was used to describe the family of Yosef much earlier in Egypt?
Water symbolizes physical matter. It is not only due to the fact that water is necessary for the living organisms. Its very nature, that allows it to take on the form and shape of the vessel it is placed in, emphasizes its lack of meaningful ‘form’.
When we entered the Sea of Reeds, we entered a new realm of life where man can now remain with his feet on terra firma, anchored to our spiritual nature, without being inundated by the waters of nature, the forces of materialism. We can defy the laws of nature.
This quality was already inherent within us, a quality we inherited from Avraham Avinu who was able to withstand the powerful forces of nature, remaining ‘apart’ and unaffected from the attitudes and indulgences of a pagan world. (שם משמואל, מהר"ל)
The world couldn’t figure out what these Jews are all about. Are they one of us, they wondered, or are they different creatures?
Perhaps this is the condescending reference to the עברים who seem to connect with the societies they inhabit, yet remain apart. That was Pharaoh’s initial fear regarding the ‘fifth column’ which lived amongst them. Will they remain allied to us or will they suddenly transform into a different being?
A dear friend, a prominent physician and Talmid Chochom, father of a beautiful and inspired family, shared with me a very touching anecdote related to his personal trajectory to the meaningful life he merits to live.
Coming from a traditional, but not fully observant home, his parents sent him to a local coed Jewish Day school, renowned for its academic excellence. Hailing from a home of sophisticated professionals, he was highly motivated and excelled in school at both his Judaic and secular studies. A darling of his Rabbeim, he advanced each year in his personal observance of mitzvos. Towards the end of his junior year, his principal approached him and inquired about his summer plans. He told him that he was very much looking forward to an action-packed fun-filled summer together with friends at a coed youth program at a Kibbutz in Israel.
His principal looked him squarely in the eyes and asked him if he was an amphibian. The young man was bemused by the question but quickly understood his principal’s intimation. Here he was growing in Torah and mitzvos during his sojourn on the fertile terrain of his school, and for the next two months he’d be jumping into the dangerous waters of temptation. He contemplated for a moment and responded with a sheepish grin, “Indeed, I’m amphibious and can live happily in both worlds!” His genuinely concerned principal warmly responded that he was in error, because an amphibian is not a creature that can live part of the year one way and the other part differently. An amphibian maintains its ability to alight to land even while it swims in deep waters.
That brief exchange transformed his entire perspective. He decided then and there to take his principal’s advice to join NCSY’s sports camp that summer.
The rest is history.
When G-d created the world, He decreed “let the waters beneath the heaven be gathered into one area, and let the dry land appear”.
Man struggled to maintain his equilibrium despite the tension that existed between the waters which held back its waves, allowing man to flourish on dry land. As long as man remained ‘apart’, the land gave forth its bounty, preventing the waves of temptation from inundating him.
But humanity failed. They indulged, descending to depravity. The waters were unleashed and flooded the planet.
And He blotted out, כל היקום, all the existence that was on the face of the ground...
Egypt represented a return to those earlier follies. G-d was ready to forge a nation that would escape from these clutches learning how to live as true amphibians, never succumbing to the tidal waves that sought to drown them. G-d would demonstrate before the world that the mighty forces of a physical world would go awry in the face of those who couldn’t maintain a healthy and safe distance, drowning in its pull.
The word used to portray man’s success in life, utilizing plant and animal life to support his vital needs and developing society and commerce is יקום, translating literally as that which gives man ‘standing’ on safe ground.
The three plagues that specifically attacked vegetative and animal life, the source of man’s sustenance, were the: Plague that devastated their livestock; Hail, which destroyed much of their crops; Locust, that decimated all the plants that were left.
The Children of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea...
When we, ‘עברים/Hebrews’, entered the sea it was a reenactment of creation. This time we became so elevated to be beyond the limitation of nature. We breathed as if we were on land despite being surrounded by a world lacking gaseous oxygen.
We are ‘holy’ amphibians who are capable of overcoming the powerful forces of our material existence by nourishing our lungs with the oxygen we need that can only be provided by immersing ourselves in a life of Torah and mitzvos, the gills that provide eternal life.
צבי יהודה טייכמאן