"Arami Oved Avi"
Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion
PARASHAT KI TAVO
"Arami 'Oved Avi"
By Rav Michael Hattin
Parashat Ki Tavo is a lengthy section that optimistically begins with a description of the inspiring ritual of the bikkurim, or first fruits, that are to be presented by the grateful farmer at the Temple in Jerusalem. In an evocative ceremony, the fruits must be gently raised upon the shoulder and then put down next to the altar, as the farmer first experientially relives the odyssey of exile and redemption and then recites a formula that briefly outlines the history of his people. In terse but charged phrases, he is to recall their descent to Egypt and subsequent enslavement, their outcries to God who heard their woes and liberated them, and their eventual arrival and settlement in the land that He gave them as their eternal possession.
The parasha then continues with another agricultural observance, this time concerning the tithing of the crops. The separated tithes that had been stored up by the landowner in anticipation of an opportunity for their allocation, must be allotted to their respective recipients, whether the landless Levi or else the indigent and needy, and the landowner must then solemnly declare that he has not unlawfully withheld them from distribution. Here again, the declaration singles out the land for special mention and then concludes with a poignant prayer that God sustain His people upon it and grant them its bounty: "Look down from Your holy habitation in the heavens and bless Israel Your people as well as the land that You have given us, just as You swore to our ancestors concerning a land that flows with milk and honey!" (Devarim 26:15).
THE COVENANT AND THE ASSEMBLY
The next sections, all unabashedly hopeful in tone, speak both of Israel's inseparable bond with God as well as of the heavy burden of responsibility that they must bear as a result (26:16-19). In essence, Moshe has now completed the review and explication of the mitzvot of the Torah, and his concluding remarks therefore concern the people's formal acceptance of the Torah's commands in a Covenantal Ceremony. "Moshe, the Kohanim and Levi'im addressed all of Israel, stating: 'Be attentive and listen, Israel, for on this day you have become a people to God your Lord. Hearken to the voice of God your Lord, perform His commands and decrees that I enjoin upon you this day'" (Devarim 27:9-10).
What follows is a description of the national assembly to be convened immediately after the people cross the River Jordan and enter the land. In the valley of Shekhem, located between the summits of fertile Mount Gerizim and barren Mount Eval, Israel is to construct a ceremonial altar. Upon the plaster that coats its uncut stones, the text of the Torah is to be clearly inscribed, in order to impress upon the people that their success in the new land will be a direct result of their fidelity to God and to His teachings (27:1-8). Gathered as one, the people are then to listen attentively as the Levi'im loudly proclaim the list of so-called 'Blessings' and 'Curses.' As each one of the maledictions is pronounced, they are to formally acknowledge their assent to its articles by solemnly responding 'amen!' The brief and succinct inventory of misdeeds, in the main detailing concealed infractions concerning idolatry, breaches of trust, and sexual immorality, is followed in turn by a concise passage spelling out the national blessings to be enjoyed if the people of Israel observe the Torah: international acclaim, bountiful crops and healthy offspring, crushing victory over their foes, and economic stability and expansion will be theirs (27:11-28:14). A much lengthier section, describing the dire consequences that will befall the people of Israel should they fail to hearken to the Torah's words, concludes the parasha (Devarim 28:15-69).
THE ADMONITION AND THE PARASHA'S OPPOSING THEMES
This "Tochekha" or Admonition climactically catalogues the converse of the earlier blessings. In progressively more frightful phrases, Israel's punishment, should they fail to uphold the dictates of the Torah, is spelled out. Sickness, drought, famine and defeat will overtake them, for the enemy will seize their crops, lay siege to their cities, and then cruelly exile them from their land. Israel will be violently scattered among the nations, there to serve lifeless gods of wood and stone in pathetic vulnerability. In interminable exile they will remain, until such a time as they initiate their restoration by considering their ways and remembering their God.
The overall thrust of the parasha is thus a glaring study in contrasts the good and the bad, the blessing and the curse, the promise of life and the threat of death all of it pivoting precariously around the pledge of the new land. Israel's ineluctable destiny, to be champions of God's teachings and exemplars of His righteous ways, will in the end be realized either consensually through the people's judicious exercise of their own free will and consent, or else coercively through the imposition of the corrective forces that they themselves will unleash as a consequence of their own ruinous choices.
THE PASSAGE OF THE BIKKURIM OR FIRST FRUITS
This week, we will consider one single verse of the parasha, taken from the declaration of the First Fruits described above. The medieval commentaries disagree concerning the meaning of the passage, and they in turn are in opposition to the traditional interpretation of the early Rabbis. In the end, though, we will discover that the themes emphasized in the verse, according to all of the possible readings, highlight many of the larger ideas that animate the parasha as a whole:
When you enter the land that God your Lord gives to you, and you shall possess it and dwell in it. Then you shall take from the first of all the fruits of the earth that you shall bring from the land that God your Lord gives you, and you shall place them in a basket. You shall go to the place that God will choose to cause His name to dwell there. You shall approach the Cohen who shall be there at that time, and shall say to him: "I declare this day before God your Lord that I have come into the land that God swore unto our ancestors to give us." The Cohen shall take the basket from your hands and place it down before the altar of God your Lord.
You shall proclaim before God your Lord: "ARAMI 'OVED AVI. He went down to Egypt and sojourned there few in number, and there became a great, powerful and populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and afflicted us, and put upon us difficult labor. We cried out to God the Lord of our ancestors, and God heard our voice, saw our affliction, our burden, and our distress. God took us out of Egypt with a strong hand, an outstretched arm, awesome acts, signs and wonders. He brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now I have brought the first fruits of the earth that you have given me God," and you shall put them down before God your Lord and prostrate yourself before God your Lord.
You shall rejoice in all the good that God your Lord has given to you and to your household, you and the Levite, and the convert that dwells in your midst (Devarim 26:1-11).
The basic schema of the rite is straightforward enough, and can be conveniently categorized into three discrete elements: 1) the bringing of the first fruits and their presentation, 2) the declaration, 3) the joyous aftermath. It should be noted that while the account of our passage is described from the perspective of the individual farmer, who brings the fruits to God's House and subsequently rejoices with family and a close circle of associated individuals, the declaration is phrased in the plural. In it, the supplicant concisely recalls Jewish national history, placing particular emphasis on the experience of the enslavement in Egypt, the Exodus, and the entry into the land. The themes of the declaration once again pivot around contrasts: few ancestors becoming a multitude, oppressed slaves achieving freedom, and homeless people acquiring a land "flowing with milk and honey."
THE READING OF THE RASHBAM
It is the opening words of the declaration in verse 5, however, that are most cryptic. "Arami oved avi" is seemingly a description of our ancestor, the very one who is immediately described as having "gone down to Egypt and sojourned there few in number " But who exactly is this unnamed ancestor that is described as an Aramean? Here, the Rashbam and the Ibn Ezra, two contemporary rationalists of the 12th century, the former from northern France and the latter from southern Spain, disagree. Rashbam explains:
My ancestor Avraham was an Aramean, a nomadic wanderer from the land of Aram, as the verse states: "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you " (Bereishit 12:1). And further it states: " and so it was that when God caused me to wander forth (hiT'U) from my father's house " (Bereishit 20:13). The usage of OVeD and To'E is the same and both describe a person who is exiled, as the verse states "I have wandered (Ta'Eeti) as a lost (OVeD) sheep; seek out your servant!" (Tehillim 119:176), or as in "lost (OVDot) sheep are your people, for their shepherds have led them astray (hiT'Oom)" (Yirmiyahu 50:6). This is to say that our ancestors came from a foreign land to this land, and God gave it to us (commentary to 26:5-10).
For the Rashbam, the wandering Aramean of our passage is none other than our father Avraham. Hailing from a foreign land, from the northern reaches of the Euphrates elsewhere known as "Aram Naharaim" or "Aram that is between the rivers" (Bereishit 24:10, et al), Avraham heard God's call and set forth for Canaan. The journey was long and arduous, and having arrived, Avraham and Sarah did not remain stationary, but like proverbial sheep they nomadically wandered the length and breadth of the central hill country. And though buoyed by the recurring Divine promises of offspring and land, those pledges remained throughout their lifetimes painfully beyond their reach. It would in fact be many centuries before their descendents began the lengthy process of possessing the land. "'OVeD," then, means "wandering" and serves as an apt description of our ancestors' travails.
The Rashbam's reading is therefore about glaring contrasts: at first we were homeless nomads, exiled from our birthplace but denied a place to call our own, forced to seek refuge under the protection of foreign kingdoms that oppressed us mightily. But then God heard our cries, liberated us from domination, and brought us into Canaan so that we might finally strike down roots and build a state, so that finally the weary farmer might gratefully declare that "now I have brought the first fruits of the earth that you have given me God!" (26:10).
If we adopt the interpretation of the Rashbam, then we must assume that when the verse states that "My father was a wandering Aramean," and then goes on to describe how "he went down to Egypt and sojourned there few in number, and there became a great, powerful and populous nation," that the latter half of the verse is speaking figuratively. This is because although Avraham himself did briefly go down to Egypt when famine struck Canaan after his arrival (Bereishit 12:10), he did not remain their long and he and Sarah had no offspring until many years after their return. It was only his descendents that went down to Egypt for an extended stay and there became numerous, powerful and eventually the objects of Pharaoh's xenophobic zeal.
THE READING OF THE IBN EZRA
Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra provides an alternate reading, identifying the Aramean of the passage with a different ancestor of the people of Israel and providing us in the process with another aspect of what it means "to be lost":
It seems to me that the Aramean is our father Ya'acov. It is as if the passage states that "when my father was in Aram he was lost," for to be lost in this context means to be indigent and without means. Similarly, the verse states "Give strong drink to he who is lost (OVeD), and wine to those who are bitter in spirit" (Mishle 31:6). It then goes on to indicate that "He will drink and forget his poverty, and his travail will he no longer remember" (Mishle 31:7). The verse therefore should be rendered as "a poor Aramean was my father." The meaning of the matter is that I did not inherit this land from my father because he was poverty stricken when he first came to Aram. Also, he dwelt in Egypt few in number, and only afterwards became a numerous nation. You God brought us forth from slavery and gave us a goodly land " (commentary to 26:5).
For the Ibn Ezra, the passage recalls the life of our father Ya'acov who was forced to flee his brother 'Esav's murderous wrath. Sorrowfully and abruptly, Ya'acov left behind his aged parents, heading northeastwards at his mother's behest in search of refuge in the home of his wily uncle Lavan (Bereishit 27:42-45). Arriving at Aram, Ya'acov was entirely without means, at first sustained by his mother's deceitful brother but then indentured to him in tending the sheep. Though Ya'acov acquired wives and flocks while in Lavan's employ, true security and stability eluded him. In the end, Ya'acov had to take flight from his uncle, who had brazenly changed the conditions of employment innumerable times, never failing to capitalize on Ya'acov's vulnerability.
Once again, our passage provides us with a study in contrasts, but this time it is not exile versus settlement but rather poverty versus wealth that is highlighted. The presenter of the first fruits recalls the distress of father Ya'acov, whose poverty necessarily produced dependence, and whose dependence encouraged oppression at Lavan's hands. Ya'acov did in fact go down to Egypt, after famine in Canaan forced the household to relocate, while Yosef's position of power and authority as the Pharaoh's vizier created ideal conditions for their absorption. There the family remained, but soon the welcome of their Egyptians hosts was exhausted. A new king arose over the Two Lands and shortly thereafter Ya'acov's descendents were cruelly enslaved. Finally, God heard their cries and redeemed them, eventually bringing them to a land flowing with milk and honey. Industriously, they tilled its terraced slopes and the land gave forth its bounty. Now standing before the altar, the appreciative farmer, his basket laden with a representative selection of his fields' bounty, recalled the earlier days, when poverty and indigence were his ancestor's lot. And then solemnly, he thanked God and prostrated himself before taking his leave.
Here, then, are two readings, one that emphasizes the precious gift of a place to call home and the other that celebrates the good fortune of prosperity and economic triumph. Both Rashbam as well as Ibn Ezra buttress their respective interpretations with other Scriptural references, but in the end their explanations really need no additional support. They are so intuitively correct that proof is unnecessary. No man who is homeless or else poor can truly be independent. And the blessing of a land, then, cannot be fully realized as long as one lives under the domination, political or economic, of overlords. The Israelite farmer, then, had much for which to be grateful. Cognizant of his ancient history of expulsion and want, the he thanked God in sincerity for having helped him to overcome the earlier challenges.
As Moshe's life ebbs away, he is careful to not only impress upon Israel their bright future, but also to remind them of their difficult past, so that they might never lose sight of God's blessings. The land of Canaan beckons, an end at last to their own nomadic wanderings and extended state of dependence, but Israel's success upon its fertile soil will be an ongoing function of their ability to internalize the core ideas contained in the declaration of the First Fruits.