Taste of Torah
A Bima-Ready D’var Torah Every Week
18 Elul 5776
Parashat Ki Tavo
Lessons from a Mysterious Aramean
Torah Portion: Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8
Haftarah Portion: Isaiah 60:1-22
The ISJL Taste of Torah periodically features contributions from members of the ISJL Staff. This week's drash comes from Rachel Fraade, a First Year Fellow in our Education Department.
The climax of the Passover Seder contains the timeless line: "my father was a wandering Aramean." What people don't always realize is that the line comes directly from the Torah, and from this week's parasha. The original Hebrew says, "arami oved avi." Depending on your translation, this could mean two things. The first option is what most people are familiar with: "my father was a wandering Aramean." But just who, or what, exactly is an Aramean? Aram is the land that Abraham came from, so this verse could apply to him[i]-but according to Ibn Ezra and most sages, the verse refers to Jacob, Abraham's grandson.[ii] However, the famous sage Rashi gives us a second option. Our forefathers weren't Aramean, he argues - they were Jews! He reads the verse as, "an Aramean sought to destroy my father." This Aramean was Laban, Jacob's father-in-law.[iii] He tricked Jacob for years, benefiting from his hard work while promising a reward that was always just on the horizon. The Torah verses that follow the words "arami oved avi" describe the additional hardships Jacob faced once in Egypt, and tell us that he went on to prosper thanks to God's help.
Though these readings are different, the lessons they teach us are very similar. Let's go for a minute with the assumption that the wandering Aramean is Jacob. Jacob is physically on the move from the time he tricks his brother Esau out of his birthright and has to escape, all the way until he flees famine in his old age and ends up in Egypt. Eventually, the Israelites thrive, but they never forget their difficult history.
Now that we've explored that possibility, let's take a look at what it would mean if Laban is the Aramean in question, and the Torah is saying that he tries to destroy Jacob. Jacob survives hardship, and later prospers. Does this sound familiar? Jacob and the Israelites struggle, but eventually succeed, just like in the other interpretation of the text.
Still, there are some fundamental differences between these two interpretations of the same three words. Rashi argues the verse can't apply to Jacob because he can't be an Aramean since he is an Israelite. For Rashi, "Aramean" and "Israelite" are mutually exclusive identities. It's reminiscent of the classic Jewish summer camp dilemma: are we Jewish Americans or American Jews? But this question creates a false choice. Our other identities don't cancel out our Judaism - rather, they inform and enhance it. Being an American doesn't make us more or less Jewish - it just means we might practice in our own way. The Jewish community is enhanced by groups like Jews in All Hues which supports the inclusion and representation of Jews from a multitude of races and heritages. We make ourselves stronger as a community when we bring all of our identities-race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, and others-to the table. Whether Aramean or otherwise, we should welcome everyone's experiences into the fold.
Putting aside the question of who the Aramean really is, there are still some similarities between the two interpretations. In both of them, our forefathers struggle. Wandering the desert isn't exactly a picnic, especially with 13 unruly kids and a big group of camels in tow. So being a wandering Aramean isn't ideal, but neither is being pursued by a vengeful father-in-law. But regardless of which interpretation the sages favored, they all agreed that our ancestors endured significant hardships.
History tends to repeat itself, and one could say that we've seen the same pattern in the past century of Jewish life. Like other immigrant groups, Jews initially struggled before finding acceptance in the larger society. We are commanded to give tzedakah and help the needy throughout our tradition, but it becomes especially meaningful when we understand what it means to be the ones in need. It is so easy to retreat into our own lives and problems, forgetting where we come from. But as Jews, it is our responsibility to stand up against injustice wherever we see it. We know firsthand the horrors that can take place when prejudice is allowed to grow unchecked. Now that we find ourselves in a more secure social position, we must not revel in this new safety and forget our history. Rather, we must speak up and reach out until all groups have the same opportunities as us. Maybe this is the reason we read year after year that we were wanderers; we remember our difficult history so that we can work to make the world better for all those still lost in the desert.
[i] Rashbam on Deuteronomy 26:5.
[ii] Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 26:5.
[iii] Rashi on Deuteronomy 26:5.
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First Year Education Fellow
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