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Posted by David Kasher on 7 September 2017 | Comments

Where exactly does our national story begin?

That is a question that arises every year at the Passover Seder, when we gather around a table to tell the tale of how we became a people. Where do we start? With Joseph’s being sold into slavery? The descent of Jacob’s household to Egypt? The rise of the new Pharaoh?

One answer is provided by the passage that opens this week’s parsha, in the Declaration of the First Fruits ceremony. The people are commanded, upon first entering the land of Israel, to take an offering from the first produce harvested in this new settlement, to bring it to the priest in charge at the time, and to recite the following:

“My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us, and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which you, O Lord, have given me.” (Deut. 26:5-10)

ה וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹקיךָ, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב.  ו וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים, וַיְעַנּוּנוּ; וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ, עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה.  ז וַנִּצְעַק, אֶל-ה אֱלֹקי אֲבֹתֵינוּ; וַיִּשְׁמַע ה אֶת-קֹלֵנוּ, וַיַּרְא אֶת-עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת-עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת-לַחֲצֵנוּ.  ח וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ ה, מִמִּצְרַיִם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל--וּבְאֹתוֹת, וּבְמֹפְתִים.  ט וַיְבִאֵנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַיִּתֶּן-לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ.  י וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת-רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתָּה לִּי, ה.

There we have one of the most succinct tellings of the Exodus, a journey into slavery and back to freedom in just five quick verses. It is not clear, however, what the opening phrase of this declaration is doing here, and what it adds to the story. “Arami oved avi” - “My father was a wandering Aramean.”  The Aram region is a familiar Biblical landscape. It is located in modern-day Syria, and was home to several ancient Semitic tribes who shared the Aramaic language. But who is this Aramean father of ours, where was he wandering, and what does that have to do with the Exodus narrative?

In fact, those opening words are even more ambiguous than they appear here. For we have borrowed the JPS translation, which reads the ‘wandering’ as the action of the ‘father,’ who is also the ‘Aramean’ in question. But the more famous rendering of this phrase, given by Rashi (who borrows his interpretation from the Sifrei), understands the verb as transitive - the action of one subject upon a direct object - meaning, it was the Aramean who caused my father to wander. So in that case, who was the Aramean and who was the father? Rashi answers:

An Aramean caused my father to wander - this is Lavan, who sought to uproot everyone when he chased after Jacob.

 ארמי אובד אבי, לבן בקש לעקור את הכל, כשרדף אחר יעקב. 

Now this answer does make some sense in the Biblical narrative, especially because Lavan - Jacob’s uncle and father-in-law - is the only character actually named in the Torah as “The Aramean”: Lavan HaArami (לבן הארמי). And this has become the most widely-known interpretation due to its incorporation in the Passover Haggadah, in the following passage from the Maggid section:

Go and learn what what Lavan the Aramean sought to do to Our Father Jacob. For Pharaoh only decreed the death sentence upon the males, but Lavan sought to uproot the whole people. As it is stated (Deuteronomy 26:5), "An Aramean caused my father to wander and he went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation."

צֵא וּלְמַד מַה בִּקֵּשׁ לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת לְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ: שֶׁפַּרְעֹה לֹא גָזַר אֶלָּא עַל הַזְּכָרִים, וְלָבָן בִּקֵּשׁ לַעֲקֹר אֶת-הַכֹּל. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט, וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, עָצוּם וָרָב.

The Haggadah goes on to give a detailed explanation of nearly every phrase in our verse from Deuteronomy, but takes the understanding of Lavan as the Aramean as a given.

Other medieval commentators, however, objected to this interpretation. The great Spanish grammarian, Abraham Ibn Ezra, first points out that, as a technical matter, the verb for ‘wander’ - oved (אובד) - is not actually in the transitive form. But then he brings a contextual challenge as well:

And furthermore, what is the reason for saying that “Lavan sought to make Jacob wander” before speaking of his going down to Egypt? For Lavan did not cause Jacob to go down to Egypt!

ועוד מה טעם לאמר לבן בקש להאביד אבי וירד מצרימה ולבן לא סבב לרדת אל מצרים

Now, it is true, Lavan chased after Jacob as he left Aram, but Jacob eventually made it back home to Canaan, and settled there for a good twenty years before he ever went down to Egypt. And when Jacob did finally go to Egypt, it was because he heard his son Joseph was a ruler there, and because Joseph promised to provide the family with refuge from the famine that was then afflicting the region. Lavan was hardly the cause of that move.

Rashi’s grandson, the Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, of Troyes), seemed to agree with these objections, and so gave an entirely different reading of the verse in Deuteronomy:

My father was a wandering Aramean - My father Abraham was an Aramean, and he was wandering and exiled from the Land of Aram. As it is written (in Gen. 12:1), “Go forth from your native land…”

ארמי אובד אבי - אבי אברהם ארמי היה, אובד וגולה מארץ ארם. כדכתיב: לך לך מארצך. 

Now Abraham is cast as both the wanderer and the Aramean. The Rashbam explains that Abraham can certainly be considered a wanderer, for he was called upon to set out from his homeland, with no knowledge of where he would end up. And Abraham was also originally from the Aram region, as we learn when he sends his servant:

Back to my country, and my birthplace, you will go, to find a wife for my son Isaac. (Gen. 24:4)

 אֶל-אַרְצִי וְאֶל-מוֹלַדְתִּי, תֵּלֵךְ; וְלָקַחְתָּ אִשָּׁה, לִבְנִי לְיִצְחָק.

And so his servant sets off:

He arose, and went to Aram Naharaim, unto the city of Nahor. (Gen. 24:10)

 וַיָּקָם, וַיֵּלֶךְ אֶל-אֲרַם נַהֲרַיִם--אֶל-עִיר נָחוֹר.

Indeed, when the servant arrives in Aram, it is none other than the same Lavan the Aramean who greets him there (for Lavan, if you’re keeping track, is Abraham’s nephew’s son).

So, says the Rashbam, the declaration of the first fruits begins with the early wanderings of our father Abraham. Beginning of the national story here has a certain logic, for it is Abraham who is recognized as the founding father of the Jewish people, and had he not responded to the call to “Go forth from your native land,” none of the rest of our history would have unfolded in the way it did. Abraham’s journey also sets the tone of our story as an immigrant’s tale. We are a people whose origins are found in the midst of wandering, in the search for a new homeland. The desert journey of the Israelites, then, which ends by crossing over into the land of Canaan, is the final fulfillment of Abraham’s original search.

What then, would be the significance of reading the story of the Exodus as Rashi does, beginning with Lavan’s pursuit of Jacob? Well, it is true, Lavan does not drive Jacob all the way down into Egypt. But he does begin a pattern of subjugation and oppression, and a marking of Israel as the foreigner. Just as Lavan worked Jacob for years without pay, and then chased Jacob when he tried to flee, so will the Pharaoh one day enslave the Israelites, and pursue them with his whole army when they attempt to escape his domain.

What is interesting about these two interpretations is that in one, the Aramean is himself the wanderer - the early immigrant who first settles the land - and in the other, the Aramean is the powerful landowner who holds the fate of the immigrant in his hands. A change of generations and circumstances has placed the once vulnerable party into the role of the oppressor.

Given this contrast, the 18th-century “Biur” commentary of Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn is especially striking. He considers both possibilities - that the Aramean in our verse refer to Abraham or to Jacob - and then suggests a remarkable third possibility:

It seems that the verse refers to both of them - Abraham and Jacob together - and not just to one or the other. And do not be troubled by the wording of “my father,” for all the Patriarchs, together, can be called “father,” for they are the foundation stone of Israel, the root of the family and the nation.

יראה שעל שניהמ ביחד על אברהם ויעקב ידבר ולא על אחד מהם ביחוד. ולא יקשה עליך ׳אבי,׳ שהאבות כולם יחדיה נקראו אב, להיותם אבן ישראל שורש המשפחה והעם.

According to Mendelssohn, the verse speaks simultaneously to the experiences of Abraham and of Jacob. We might well include Sarah and Rebecca, who also left Aram for the Land of Canaan, and Rachel and Leah, who fled Aram years later with Jacob. For our national history begins with all manner of wanderings - some beginning in hope, following the dream of a better future in a new land; and others beginning in desperation - fleeing persecution from an oppressive regime. And all of these wanderings are related to one another, as each journey lays the foundation for the next. 

We must be careful to remember then, that yesterday’s wandering Aramean can too easily become the Aramean who oppresses the wanderer of today. National fortunes change quickly, and every generation has its settled peoples and its wanderers. One of the great messages of the Torah is that we are to bring our memories of foreignness and uncertainty into our collective consciousness as members of a strong and settled nation. 

That is precisely what we do when, after having finally settled the Land of Israel, we bring our first fruits and begin our declarations of gratitude by invoking our foreign ancestors, all those wandering Arameans.

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