Ki Tavo: The Perishing Aramean

September 13, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo, Passover/Pesach, Shavuot | Leave a comment

A ritual harvest pilgrimage opens this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you come in”).

It will be, when you come in to the land … then you will take some of the first fruits  of every fruit of the earth that you bring in from your land that God, your god, is giving to you, and you shall place them in a basket and go to the Place …  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:1-2)

And the priest shall take the basket from your hand, and he shall set it down before the altar of God, your god.  Then you shall respond, and you shall say before God, your god:  “A perishing Aramean was my forefather (Arami oveid avi), and he went down to Egypt …”  (Deuteronomy 26:4-5)

Arami = an Aramean, someone from the country of Aram (roughly corresponding to present-day Syria)

oveid = perishing, becoming lost, being destroyed, nearing ruin

avi = my father, my forefather

The Talmud provides a detailed description of the ritual of bringing the first fruits of the year, the bikkurim, to the altar of the second temple in Jerusalem.  But the second temple was destroyed in the year 70, and by 220, when Judah HaNasi recorded the Mishnah (the core of the Talmud), the first part of the declaration before the priest had already been transplanted into a different ritual:  the Passover seder.  Although Passover is observed at home in the spring, it does center around the story of the exodus from Egypt, and for at least 1,800 years, the traditional opening of the story on Passover is “Arami oveid avi”.

I translate “Arami oveid avi” as “A perishing Aramean was my forefather”.  It’s a straightforward translation, but not all translations are so direct.

One approach, used by the 3rd-century commentary Sifrei and the 11th-century commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak), claims that the phrase means  “An Aramean was destroying my forefather”.  According to this approach, the forefather is Jacob, and the Aramean is Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law and opponent in the book of Genesis.  I’ve noticed that some classic commentary makes every effort to attribute additional evil deeds to the enemies of the patriarchs of Israel (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).  Here, the commentary has to make a stretch by claiming that  avi (my forefather) is the direct object of a verb in “Arami oveid avi”.   But according to the usual grammar of biblical Hebrew, the Aramean and the forefather in this phrase are the same person, who is described as being oveid.

Many modern haggadot (books of Passover ritual) translate the phrase as  “A wandering Aramean was my forefather”.  It’s true that all three patriarchs were nomadic herdsmen who wandered from place to place.  But I think “wandering” is a poor translation, reflecting a desire to avoid saying anything negative about one of the patriarchs.  Every other time any form of the word oveid appears in the Torah,  it has to do with perishing, ruin, or destruction.  For example, Deuteronomy 30:18 says:  “I tell you today that you will certainly perish; you will not live long upon the earth …”

So a direct reading of “Arami oveid avi …” is that the declarer’s forefather was an Aramean who was perishing, and who then went down to Egypt.  This could describe either Abraham or Jacob, since both lived in Aram for part of their lives, and both traveled to Egypt when there was a famine in Canaan.  Calling this forefather an Aramean emphasizes his insecure status as a resident alien in Canaan.  Calling him “perishing” points out that famine was threatening the man’s life; he and his family were perishing from hunger.

In contrast, the Torah tells the Israelites that once they have taken over Canaan, they must bring the first fruits of their fields and orchards  to the temple.  They are blessed with food only because God did not inflict a famine upon them.  The offering of first fruits expresses gratitude and acknowledges that humans, and plants, are dependent on God.

Over and over the Torah reminds us not to be smug when we prosper, because our prosperity is not due entirely to our own efforts; our success also depends on the grace of God.  The ancient Israelites expressed gratitude for divine gifts through offerings of food plants and animals, just as Jews for the last 2,000 years have expressed gratitude for divine gifts through prayers.

In this week’s Torah portion, the phrase Arami oveid avi, “A perishing Aramean was my father”, reminds us that even God’s favorite people, such as Abraham or Jacob, might perish.  As some American have learned since the  economic crash of 2009, and others learned after the crash of 1929, we can never count on personal prosperity, even if we do all the right things.

Yes, we must cultivate our crops to get nourishment from them.  Our own efforts are necessary, but not sufficient.  The good life is a fragile blessing, a temporary gift.  Let’s appreciate every good thing while we have it.  Let’s notice the first fruit of every new blessing in our lives, and lift up our souls by expressing our gratitude.

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