The Mayflower’s historic 66 day voyage in 1620 from Plymouth, England to the New World was characterized by what was then typical hardship for both passengers and crew. Arduous handling of the heavy canvas sails, coping with almost non-existent bathroom facilities, and barely surviving on non-refrigerated food were only a few of the challenges faced by those who made that voyage.
While much has improved for mariners, one activity that plagued those on the Mayflower still requires attention today. Whether a cruise ship like the Symphony of the Seas at over 1,100 feet long (more than a thousand times larger than the Mayflower) or the small motorboat on which the Lapin family explores coastal British Columbia, all boats have bilge pumps. Their purpose is to return the water that inevitably finds its way into the bottoms of boats back to where it belongs—outside the boat.
The Mayflower had two large unwieldy contraptions made of wood that required the manpower of several men to operate. Today’s vessels admit far less water and most are equipped with electric bilge pumps which switch on and off automatically as necessary. Still, even though one knows that the bilge pump will deal with it, it’s always a little disconcerting to spot water in the bottom of one’s boat, especially if it looks like a little more than should be there from normal shaft seal drippage or condensation. It always reminds me of how utterly dependent one is upon the watertight integrity of one’s ship. Perhaps this is why sailors tend to be either superstitious or religious.
The fact is that crossing any body of water is an unnatural act for humans. But whether it is building jetliners or controlling our anger at an insult, we humans specialize in overcoming nature! So, whether it is a ten-year-old boy crossing the village pond on a home-made raft or an intrepid sailor competing in one of the grueling single-handed round the world races, crossing a body of water is a significant and meaningful experience.
Even crossing over water by a bridge is significant enough to spur an entire collection of bridge idioms: ‘cross that bridge later’; ‘build bridges’; ‘burn bridges’; ‘cross that bridge when we get to it,’ and so on. Crossing over water plainly carries significance.
Which makes the oldest and most venerable name for Jews also significant and meaningful. The name Hebrew, as in “Abraham the Hebrew” is a loose transliteration of the Hebrew word, IVRI.
And the fugitive came and he told Abram the Hebrew…
IVRI means someone who has crossed over, usually a body of water.
And I took your father Abraham from the other side of the river,
and led him throughout all the land of Canaan…
Abraham’s first act of obedience to God involved leaving his birthplace and crossing the Euphrates River.
Joseph in Egypt was referred to as a Hebrew.
Now it happened, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside, that she called to the people of her house, and she spoke to them, saying, “Look! He brought us a Hebrew man to mock us.
Joseph had also crossed a river, the Nile on his way to Egypt.
Guess who else crossed water and is also called a Hebrew? That’s right, Jonah.
And they [the sailors] said to him, “Tell us now, because of whom has this evil befallen us? What is your work and whence do you come? What is your land, and from what people are you?”
And Jonah said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord God of heaven, Who made the sea and the dry land.”
In their founding years, the Israelites experienced three distinct geographical places. First, they were in Egypt. Then they transited from Egypt to the desert where they spent 40 years. Thereafter, they transited from the desert to the Promised Land. Both of these transitions involved crossing water, respectively the Red Sea and the Jordan River (Exodus 14 and Joshua 3).
Not surprisingly, Jews are called Hebrews, meaning “the water crossers.” Throughout Scripture, crossing water is always seen as a metaphor for a significant life transition and Hebrews—Water Crossers—are meant always to be ready to transition to a new level of growth. This may be why Jews, in general, are the world’s worst relaxers. There’s always another bridge to cross, another journey to take, another challenge to seize. Now is not the time to relax. It never is the time to relax. And it wasn’t ever time to relax for the Pilgrims either. In more ways than one, they saw themselves as America’s first Hebrews!