Parshat Ki Tavo: A Wandering Aramean

This week’s parshah, Ki Tavo, begins in Deuteronomy 26 when Moshe predicted a future time when his people would settle Eretz-Israel, according to the promise given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moshe instructed the people that once they settled the land flowing with milk and honey, they were to bring of their first fruits to the place where HaShem would cause His Name to dwell. They were to affirm there the vidui bikkurim, which includes the proclamation, “I have come to the land which HaShem swore unto our fathers to give us.”
Then, curiously, future Israelis, according to verse 5, were to humbly acknowledge that their father, ancestrally speaking, had been a wandering Aramean. How odd! As always with sacred writings, the text is subject to interpretation and there are differences of opinion concerning what the three Hebrew words “Arami oved avi” really mean.
Abraham was originally from Aram. By extension, his grandson, Jacob, was also Aramean. Jacob’s mother, Rebecca, had been fetched directly from Aram by Abraham’s own servant. (Genesis 24) Furthermore, Jacob himself lived in Aram for 20 years while working for Laban.
Some commentators apparently are uncomfortable being reminded that our father was a wandering Aramean. So they prefer to change the Masoretic vocalization to “Arami ibed avi,” meaning “an Aramean destroyed my father.” In this interpretation, Laban, the father-in-law of Jacob, would be the Aramean identified in the text.
First, Jacob was not destroyed by Laban, even though Laban pursued him with ill intentions. Second, these expositors are missing the point that Abraham and his whole family traced their roots to Aram and did not identify as Canaanites. Laban was Jacob’s uncle before he became his father-in-law, and thus was a part of the extended family still living in Aram. (Genesis 24:4, 29) Our father was indeed an Aramean, no matter how it is sliced. Also, understanding “Arami oved avi” in this way adds a much needed humbling perspective.
My father was a wandering Aramean. These words, so loaded with depth and meaning, are such a reflection of what the Jewish soul should humbly acknowledge. It is an expression of such introspection, a sober reminder, if we are ever tempted to believe that we are in any way better than non-Jews, that our ancestor also was just a wandering Aramean. It is the mission to which our people have been tasked with fulfilling that sets us apart. It is the Jewish mission that is special even if we ourselves as individuals may not be so special.
Abraham was not Jewish, but an Aramean who came to be identified as a Hebrew. He was the first convert to the belief system that we’ve embraced and inherited for the past 4,000 years. Neither Abraham, nor Jacob had any “royal” Jewish blood flowing through their veins. Royal Jewish blood later came to be identified with the Davidic line.
The Hebrew word for Jew, Yehudi, originally meant someone descended from Yehuda (Judah), the fourth son of Jacob. If being descendants of wandering Arameans wasn’t bad enough, the royal Davidic line resulted from the union of Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38), under very questionable circumstances. King David was the great-grandson of Ruth, the Moabite convert to Judaism, and Boaz, the descendant of Judah and Tamar.
Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David, was not to be the last convert to Judaism. The Tanach predicts in Zechariah 2:15 many more non-Jews embracing Judaism. Verse 14 tells the daughter of Zion to rejoice. Verse 15 then predicts that goyim rabim will join HaShem and also become His people. Although they currently may be no more than wandering Arameans, like Abraham and Jacob, they will espouse the same spiritual principles. Like Ruth, they too will embrace Naomi’s people, Israel, as their people and Naomi’s God as their God.
The one seeking the blessing of HaShem in Deuteronomy 26 was not only to declare that he had come to Eretz-Israel, but also acknowledge how far his people had come from the time so long ago when our father Jacob was just a wandering Aramean. Thus, only after acknowledging his humble roots in verse 5, did verse 11 encourage the worshipper to rejoice in all the good he had been granted.
We have come to the land in hope of making peace and not war. We have come to take our place among the family of nations. We have come to apply our minds in seeking solutions to the world’s problems. May we be worthy of this admat hakodesh (Zechariah 2:16) upon which so many of our forefathers and foremothers lived, struggled, and died while defining for us what we can be as we accept the continuation of their ancient and sacred vision of working to make the world a better place.
Although the Torah forever directs us to a higher plane on which we can walk, we must never forget that it is the mission that we are tasked to fulfill that makes a Jewish life so worthwhile. We may not ourselves be special, but by fully embracing our unique Jewish mission, we can live special lives.
Yoeli's Mandate: Leave your mark, make a difference for the good, and do your part to make sure that they never again devour Jacob or make his habitation waste.
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