Parashat Ki Tavo 5776

Rabbi Yuval Keren, 23 September 2016

Jewish history goes a long way back, and much of it is very well documented. However, is it possible to summarise the entire Jewish experience in one short passage? Parashat Ki Tavo provides such an attempt:

“My ancestor was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt few in numbers, and settled there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labour upon us. We cried to the Eternal, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deuteronomy 26:5-9)

This short passage appears to summarise the entire Jewish history from the moment that Abraham and Sarah took the first leap of faith to the time that the freed slaves from Egypt arrived at the promised land. Yet, it is much more than that. It is also a reflection of the entire Jewish history and narrative to our days. Much of the Jewish heritage is summarised in these few words, and much of what we believe and practice is linked to this passage. This is perhaps the reason that this story is told and studied during the Passover Seder night, after we declare: “In every generation we must consider ourselves as if we personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt”

Yet, the understanding of this passage is somewhat obscured. “My ancestor was a wandering (oved) Aramean…” What is the meaning of ‘oved’, and who is the Aramean? The Hebrew word ‘Oved’ could mean “lost”, and it could also mean “the pursuer”? The way we interpret ‘oved’ affect the way we identify the ‘Aramean’.

If we are looking for the ‘wandering Aramean’ then we identify him as Abraham, who left his home to wander in the Promised Land. If we are looking for the “Aramean tried to eliminate my ancestor” then the ancestor is Jacob and the Aramean pursuer is his uncle and father in-law Laban. Laban is often accused by Rabbinic commentators, with attempting to lure Jacob and his household into idol worshippers. He of does try to physically kill Jacob and his family, but his attempt at turning the family of the ‘wandering Aramean’ Abraham into idol worshipers is considered to be worse than death – spiritual death.

The Haggadah carries on with an interpretation of each and every line of this passage. There is little doubt that in earlier years different interpretations would be provided and each person would need to understand this passage in her and his own way. It needs to be interpreted because it is very brief. It needs interpretation because it needs to be relevant to every generation from Abraham to our days. It needs interpretation because our need to interpret and reinterpret the words of the Torah never stop. We must see ourselves as if we all came out of Egypt, and we must make the story of the Exodus relevant to our own time, space and experience.

We are the wandering Aramean Jews. We went down to Egypt, Morocco, Russia, Poland, and Germany, and we settled there, and we became prosperous. The Egyptians, and others, dealt harshly with us at times, and oppressed us. They sometimes imposed heavy labour upon us. The ‘Aramean pursuer’ even tried to eliminate us, physically and spiritually. We cried to the Eternal, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Eternal freed us from bondage and carnage, and brought us to our ancestral land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and turned us into a Start-up Nation.”

This story, the story of the Jewish people is not complete as yet, and perhaps it will never be complete. I have no doubt that by a different person and in a different generation, this passage from Deuteronomy would be interpreted in a different way. We still face many challenges to Judaism in our world. Some of them involve hatred and threats of physical violence. Others, and I consider them to be more dangerous in nature, are spiritual threats to our Jewish values, culture and religion. Both threats need to be taken seriously, and both need human and Divine intervention in order to release us from the fetters of bondage, and bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey.

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