Can Jewish history be reduced to a single line?

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Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8

Isaiah 60:1–22

A dear friend confessed to me many years ago that her father had, over time, dispensed with almost all of the preliminaries of the Passover Seder. Eager to get to the Festive Meal, he would convene his extended family, spread his arms wide, and proclaim in a booming voice: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” — whereupon the dinner would be served immediately.

That seemed so scandalous and exciting, hearing it for the first time. Imagine distilling the whole of the Seder (all of Jewish history, in fact) down to such a manageable and memorable sound bite! Ki Tavo actually gives us such a synopsis of the Exodus, the core narrative of Jewish history. It’s a tad longer than my friend’s father’s nine-word credo, but it’s so familiar to anyone who’s ever sat at a (slightly more) traditional Seder that it might come as a surprise to learn that it comes straight out of the Torah.

Its six sentences begin with the words “Arami oved avi” and describe the Jews’ journey to Egypt, descent into slavery, deliverance from bondage and arrival in the “land flowing with milk and honey.” Once in the land, Ki Tavo teaches, the grateful harvester was to bring his first fruits to the Temple and recite this paragraph of identification and memory in front of the kohen (priest) at the holy altar.

But for such a foundational summary of the story of slavery to redemption, those first three tantalizing words are a real challenge: Arami oved avi. They feel like an incantation or mantra, as if by repeating them with concentration we might summon something or someone from the distant past, or at least tap into a primal, original energy. That would be helpful, because translating this little phrase is no simple task.

“My father was a fugitive Aramean.” “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean.” “An Aramean tried to destroy my father.” “An Aramean would have caused my father to be lost.” These are a few of the most well-known and disparate renderings of those three words.

But who is the ancestor and who the Aramean? Are they one and the same or two different people? Is the Aramean Abraham (who, when he left Haran, could have been described as an Aramean), Jacob (who fled from Laban in Aram), or his uncle Laban (who is described explicitly and repeatedly as Laban the Aramean)? Is the father Jacob or Abraham? Someone else?

Judaism’s bravest commentators from Rashi to Devorah Steinmetz have debated for centuries the meaning and possible translations of “Arami oved avi.” The grammar is unusual and has left the door wide open for speculation. Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut suggested that this phrase, with its Sphinx-like riddle and mesmerizing rhythm, has remained significant exactly because of the questions it still provokes.

If nothing else, it is a snapshot of early Israelite life, a depiction of confusion and disorientation, where threats to security and comfort came as easily from outside the family as within. And we face the truth, when we say it at Passover and read it in Ki Tavo, that despite the State of Israel and the incredible achievements of this little people, Jews still wander and get easily lost; we are still targeted, pursued and threatened.

When we remember that, we can’t help but apply our own dislocated, stumbling journey from bondage to redemption to those who wander today: the millions upon millions who are pursued and are nearly destroyed, who yearn for a place, any place to call home, or to return to homes that no longer exist. The explicit prayer of gratitude offered by the ancient farmer was designed so that he would never forget where he came from, the family betrayals that led to rupture and dislocation, and the absolute imperative to not only give thanks for his good fortune. Instead, he would contribute willingly the best and first fruits to his Creator, and to observe the mitzvah of remembering, caring about and giving generously to those who are without.

“There was wandering, there was redemption, there is now rejoicing with this harvest,” says this week’s Torah portion.

Maybe my friend’s dad had the right idea.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].