Author’s Note: I’d like to dedicate this series to the memory of my father, David Berkowitz, who was always an early and eagle-eyed reader. I like to imagine he is reading this in the heavenly beit midrash, and I hope that he’ll figure out a way to reach me with his follow-up questions.
Our people are called by many names throughout the Tanach, but my personal favorite is one of the earliest: ivri, which means “Hebrew.”
This is not a name we chose for ourselves. Our neighbors used ivri as a way of describing our otherness. Egyptians used it to refer to Joseph and his brothers as a way of differentiating or segregating one people from another. If this usage didn’t make the connotation clear, it is linked to words in other ancient Near Eastern languages that mean “dust” or “trespasser” (habiru or hapiru).
A midrash on the verse where Avram is first called ivri (Genesis 14:13) offers three possible interpretations of the word. It may come from Ever, one of Avram’s ancestors. As the verb la’avor means “to cross over,” ivri might refer to Avram’s journey me'ever ha'nahar, across the river. Rabbi Yehuda suggests that it may refer to the uniqueness of Avram’s mission and his singular ideological stance, saying, “The whole world was on one side, (ever) and Avram was on the other side” (Genesis Rabbah 42:8). This reminds us that our identity can spring from several sources: our family history, the places that we come from and travel to, and/or the choices we make during our lifetime.
While studying the story of the midwives in Exodus 1:15, I noticed that they are called meyalledot ha'ivriot, referring to the ethnicity of the midwives and/or the women they served. In light of this midrash, however, I began to understand the term ivriot as a mark of the midwives’ courage. When Pharaoh ordered them to kill the male newborns of the Hebrew women, the midwives were willing to be “on the other side,” risking their lives by defying Pharaoh’s order.
Crossing over figures prominently in Matot-Mas'ei. The Israelites stand on one side of the Jordan River, poised to cross over into the Promised Land, but not everyone is eager to cross the river. After 40 years of wandering, the tribes of Reuben and Gad see the land on this side of the Jordan is good for grazing cattle and ask if they can settle here, saying, al ta’avirenu, “Do not make us cross over!” (Numbers 32:5).
Throughout the time in the wilderness, groups of Israelites refuse to move forward to the land God has promised them. They complain about the food, beg for water, panic at the spies’ negative reports about the Promised Land, join Korach’s uprising, and worship the Golden Calf. Each rebellion is perceived as a lack of faith in God and results in severe punishment. These refusals were a symptom of the Israelites’ uncertainty: they feared that they would die in the wilderness. Here, the Reubenites and Gadites see the Promised Land on the horizon and decide that the grass here is greener.
Moses agrees to their request on one condition: their men must cross over the Jordan to serve as troops when the Israelites conquer the Promised Land. Moses says:
“Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here? Why will you turn the minds of Israelites from crossing (me'avor) into the land that the Eternal is giving them?” (Numbers 32: 6-7).
Moses’s concern is not only that their military numbers will be depleted, but also that if two tribes choose to stay behind, others might likewise refuse to cross over into the Promised Land.
Against this backdrop, the case of Zelophehad’s daughters resurfaces. Zelophehad’s male relatives are concerned that their tribe’s landholding might pass to another tribe when the sisters marry. The law is amended, requiring the sisters to marry within their tribe. They promptly do so, securing a piece of the Promised Land for their descendants.
According to Rashi, it is no coincidence that the daughters of Zelophehad step forward when their male counterparts are stepping back. After the incident with the spies, no man from the generation that left Egypt (except for Joshua and Caleb) is permitted to enter the Promised Land,
“The decree consequent upon the incident of the spies had not been enacted upon the women, because they held the Promised Land dear. The men had said, ‘Let us appoint a chief and return to Egypt,’ while the women said, ‘Give us a possession in the Land.’” (Rashi on Numbers 26:64).
For me, this contrast highlights how the daughters of Zelophehad embody what it means to be ivri(ot). Their demand for an inheritance shows that they have faith in the future. When many of their fellow Israelites are frozen on one side of the river, they are making plans to cross over.
Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Rabbi Elizabeth Goldstein write that the story of the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land begins and ends with five courageous women, forming “bookends of Israel’s journey from slavery” (“The Torah: A Women’s Commentary”). At the beginning of the book of Exodus, we see the midwives Shifra and Puah, Moses’s mother Yocheved, his sister Miriam, and his adoptive mother Bat-Paraoh conspiring to save the lives of Hebrew children in Egypt. At the end of this parashah, Zelophehad’s daughters — Mahlah, Tirza, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noa — come forward to stake a claim in the Promised Land for the next generation.
These 10 women exemplify what it means to be ivri(ot) by challenging existing power structures and advocating and acting on behalf of the most vulnerable. They envision a future beyond their current circumstances, even if it will only be realized in the next generation. Most importantly, they have the faith and courage necessary to keep moving forward, until they can put down roots on the other side of the river.