As we grow older the story of the Sedra this week is a commentary not just about who we are and where we are going but also about what we set out to be.
In the Haggadah we read that:
Terach took his son Abram, his grandson Lot, son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Harran, they settled there
Terach, who is unfairly portrayed in the Midrash as an idol worshipper, either could not or was unable to complete the journey. Abram, Sarai and Lot would go on.
It is in this Sedra that we encounter the word “Hebrew” for the first time. When the plight of Lot was brought to his attention we read:
a fugitive brought the news to Abram the Hebrew (Avram ha’ivri)
For most of recorded history, the descendants of “Abram the Hebrew” were known simply as Jews. For the last two thousand years the word “Jew” became a derogatory term for Christianity and Islam.
Curiously the term “Hebrew” returned in the 19th century. There was a term used in England of “being an Englishman of the Hebrew persuasion”. That did not last and we reclaimed the word Jew and being Jewish in modern times. Employing the word “Hebrew” as a polite synonym for “Jews” became, in the words of the new Oxford Living Dictionaries, “dated and offensive.”
Abram’s journey will take him to Egypt and then back to Canaan. When Sarai is taken to Pharaoh’s palace. Abram does not try to retrieve her. God comes to her rescue, visiting plagues on Pharaoh. When Hagar is sent away it is God who intervenes. When Lot is in peril Abram risks his own life to save him. All our lives have unexpected twists and turns.
Brit Milah, the Covenant of the Land and the promise that their children will be a great nation all followed a change of names. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah. They each gain the letter “heh”. It signified a spiritual dimension to their lives. That is what we, as descendants of Abraham and Sarah inherit.
What is in a name or a name change? What kind of name do we make for ourselves? Whichever name we answer to or are being called, to be a Jew is privilege and a way of life.