Thanks for the Miracles!
A. The Bikkurim Ceremony
First products of one's labors are especially dear. To a farmer, fruits ripening on a tree, grains swelling in the fields, signal the success of another agricultural cycle. But stop! Don't touch that fig! Lay down that barley! By Biblical order the first fruits of every harvest are not served at the farmer's table. They are brought to the Temple in Jerusalem, and after a brief ceremony at the altar including prayers of thanks, they are given as gifts to the priests. This is the commandment of BIKKURIM - first fruits, a practice described in the opening verses of this week's parasha. Today, we will examine the text of the thanksgivingprayer recited by the farmer when he brings the Bikkurim to the priest.
[Since the three opening words of the prayer will constitute much of our study, and their translation is subject to debate, I am leaving them in Hebrew transliteration for the present.]
You shall then recite as follows before HaShem your God: "ARAMI OVED AVI, 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 HaShem, the God of our fathers, and God heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. God freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by 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 God, have given me." (Deuteronomy 26:5-10)
This is the donor's speech. It is a short summary of Jewish history, but seems to suffer from being a little too selective. From the patriarchal period the capsule provides just two details - the first three words (which we'll get to presently) describing something about a patriarch, and this character's descent to Egypt.
Three verses describe the Egyptian slavery, followed by an appreciative recollection of the salvation.
Notably absent at this point is any mention of the desert experience - the revelation at Sinai, the giving of the Torah, the building of the Tabernacle - are all ignored, as is any detail about this formative period in the relationship between God and the nation of Israel. Entry into the Land of Israel is relegated to one word: VA-YEVIENU - "He brought us." What about the fantastic feats of conquest at the hand of God or the fulfillment of age-old promises to the patriarchs that Israel would inherit the land? If this speech is meant to acknowledge that the farmer's livelihood is only possible because God graciously settled the Jewish nation in this land, surely these last two are significant points in understanding Israel's attachment to their country. What then is the true nature of this speech? Why is the slavery in Egypt the most prominent point emphasized in connection with the first fruits?
B. Arami Oved Avi
At this point we'd best examine those three words I've been avoiding - "ARAMI OVED AVI." The Jewish Publication Society offers this translation: "My father was a fugitive Aramean." JPS, however, does not say exactly which father. It could refer to Abraham who actually emigrated from Aram (present day Syria) and settled in the Land of Israel. This is the view of the Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, 12th century France) who explains that OVED means Abraham was exiled from his homeland. The farmer making his speech therefore recalls that his own presence in Israel was foreshadowed by his ancestor's.
The problem with identifying Abraham as the subject of this phrase is that it doesn't seem to fit with the continuation of the verse. Although Abraham did go down to Egypt soon after coming to Israel, he did not become a great nation while there.
Other commentators believe that the verse is talking about Jacob. The apellation "Arami" refers to the time that this third patriarch spent in his uncle Lavan's house in Aram, a period of 20 years during which he married and had a family.
Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain), for example, explains that while in Aram, Jacob was poor OVED. Having taken flight from his brother Esau, he did not inherit the land of Israel. After his descent to Egypt, his poverty is similarly expressed in his landlessness. This approach might then explain the Torah's purpose for the BIKKURIM speech: the farmer expresses gratitude that he is not a guest in another's country (like Jacob), nor a slave who doesn't even possess his own body (like the Jews in Egypt), but one who is master of his own land.
The passage is therefore not a history lesson at all, but a reflection on the misery of being at the mercy of others, contrasted with the security of being home.
For our third interpretation, which is the one we shall adopt for the rest of this shiur, we turn to Rashi's (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 11th century, France) understanding of the phrase:
An Aramean destroyed my father. Lavan sought to uproot all when he pursued after Jacob. And because he contemplated doing so God charges him as though he had done it; for as regards the heathen peoples, the Holy One Blessed Be He considers intention as the equivalent of a deed.
[Notice the changed syntax of the sentence in this interpretation. Instead of "a lost Aramean was my father," Rashi reads "an Aramean destroyed my father."]
Lavan? How is he connected to the commandment of the first fruits or to the episode in Egypt? What in fact is his story? We must go back a bit to Genesis 31 and the end of Jacob's stay in Aram, at the house of his father-in-law - an Aramean. The patriarch has fled with his wives, sons and possessions without notifying Lavan, who upon discovering the truth sets out in pursuit:
On the third day, Lavan was told that Jacob had fled. So he took his kinsmen with him and pursued him a distance of seven days, catching up with him at Mt. Gilead. But God appeared to Lavan the Aramean in a dream and said to him, "Beware of attempting anything with Jacob, good or bad." (Genesis 31:22-24)
Lavan is fearful of this divine threat but the Sages, (see Rashi's comments), accuse Lavan of being angry enough at the slight to have considered wiping out Jacob's entire family!
C. Lavan and the Egyptian Slavery
Some commentators have argued that Lavan is actually responsible for the entire Egyptian slavery: had he not switched his daughters (Genesis 29,20-24), Jacob would have married Rachel in the first place, Jacob's firstborn would have been Joseph and not Reuven, and Joseph would have taken his rightful place as leader of the brothers. He would never have been sold into slavery, the family would have lived happily ever after in Canaan, and the whole experience in Egypt would have been avoided. The flaw in this logic is that many people and events contributed to the long process resulting in the slavery, and we could build similar arguments from several starting points. More importantly, we could argue that Genesis 15:13 indicates that the sojourn in Egypt (or some nasty lengthy slavery somewhere) was intended by God all along as part of his plan to build the nation of Israel. If anything, Lavan's role should be seen as an inevitable part in God's scheme.
Another possible connection between this character and Egypt is simply that both he and Pharaoh intended to dominate the family or nation of Israel. Indeed this association is clearly stated in the Passover Haggada in which our BIKKURIM speech holds a central place. The Haggada, as is known, celebrates God's deliverance of the Jews from hardship and makes the following declaration:
The promise has stood our fathers and ourselves in good stead, for not only one persecutor has risen up against us to destroy us; for in every generation there are those who rise up against us to destroy us But the Holy One Blessed Be He always saves us from their hands. Come and learn what Lavan the Aramean tried to do to Jacob our father! For Pharaoh decreed the death of the male children only, but Lavan tried to destroy us all as it is said, "An Aramean sought to destroy my father!"
Should we be satisfied with this connection? Certainly it makes sense for the Passover Haggada to mention another salvation of the Jews - the point of the Seder is after all, to emphasize that God will always be on the side of the Jews, and in this sense, the Lavan episode confirms that Passover was not an isolated event. From the Haggada's perspective, it would probably have been more convincing to mention the plot of Haman against the Jews and the subsequent miraculous rescue as celebrated on Purim. Where Lavan's intentions are somewhat unclear (he only threatens that "I have it my power to do you harm"), Haman's plan was explicit - total annihilation of the Jews. But for some reason, the Haggada wants to make use of our passage, and we, of course, cannot expect the Torah to mention a story that has yet to occur. We could, however, question why the Torah, searching for a Jewish enemy parallel to Pharaoh, overlooks Amalek (Exodus 17) or Sichon and Og (Numbers 21), all of whom battled Israel on her trek through the desert; or Bil'am who attempted to curse the nation and to bring about her downfall mystically (Numbers 22). In fact, we should really ask why the Torah needs to mention any other act of salvation at all? Again, let us not forget that our speech is not being made at Passover, but at a celebration of fruit!
D. Revealed and Hidden Providence
I would like to suggest that the BIKKURIM ceremony is neither the place for a history lesson nor an occasion to recount the foiled attempts of various anti-Semites. It is a moment to celebrate divine providence. During the Exodus story the nation of Israel, the Egyptian persecutors, and, through the publicity which the story generated, all of humanity, learned of God's power to dominate the world. As has often been noted, the Torah portrays God as operating in nature and as directing history. The ten plagues that visit Egypt are all (save perhaps the last) manifested within nature. Rivers, insects, beasts, light are manipulated to perform in ways that serve God's plan. And of course, the grand finale of the story - the splitting of the sea - is the dramatic concluding statement that nature obeys God's will. Taking a longer view, the entire tale of the slavery and salvation, from the earliest beginnings of Joseph's adventure through the drowning of the cavalry, are attributed to God controlling the affairs of man. Joseph tells his brothers: "Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result - the survival of many people" (Genesis 50:20). Moses in turn warns Pharaoh:
For this time I will send all my plagues upon your person, and your courtiers, and your people, in order that you may know that there is none like Me in all the world. I could have stretched forth my hand and stricken you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been effaced from the earth. Nevertheless I have spared you for this purpose: in order to show you My power, and in order that My Fame may resound throughout the world. (Exodus 9:14-16)
The Torah and the Sages present God as a personal Lord, aware of the actions of man, responding to them in ways dramatic and subtle. At the birth of the nation of Israel and the start of the people's relationship with God, the events of the Exodus had to be overt, dramatic, and awe-inspiring. God's interaction with the world would never again be as explicit or obvious, nor is that kind of revelation necessarily desirable.
After the experiences in Egypt and the desert, God's ways became increasingly more hidden, causing belief in God and his involvement to become more of a challenge. Yet, extreme demonstrations of God's power and will as illustrated in Egypt were necessary, in order to establish that God has both the ability and the inclination to participate in the affairs of nature and man.
The BIKKURIM speech becomes a statement of faith that recognizes God's HIDDEN control over the world. What could be a more appropriate thank-you for the farmer to recite than to admit that the success of his crops had little to do with his work and more to do with the help of God? As for Lavan, the squelching of his threat was a hidden miracle too - his motives were known only to God who intervened before Jacob was even aware that he was being chased.
The nations mentioned earlier which Israel battles and bests are defeated presumably with God's unrevealed assistance, but there is a general sense in these encounters, as well as the conquests in the book of Joshua, that God has declared his presence. For example, at the confrontation with King Og the Torah reports, "But the Lord said to Moses `Do not fear him, for I give him and all his people and his land into your hand. You shall do to him as you did to Sichon king of the Amorites who dwelt in Cheshbon'" (Numbers 21:34). The Bil'am episode, too, contains the rather obvious miracle of a talking donkey and dialogue with an angel. In the Lavan story, God's involvement is relegated to a dream appearance as a device to alter the will of man. Here we do not find a grand display of God's might crushing opposing armies, but His participation and control are at work nonetheless.
The farmer appearing at the Temple makes a speech about divine providence and guidance, a phenomenon that encompasses various areas. He, the individual citizen of Israel states that God is secretly involved in two realms: the security of the nation of Israel, represented by the suppression of Lavan and presumably others of his ilk, as well as the material well-being of the people, manifested in the agricultural society of Israel.
These two domains of God's attention are linked to the story of Passover, the prototype for God's relationship with the world.