By Allan Myers
The opening lines of this week’s sedra could be addressed to Oliver Twist or any “rags to riches” character. These lines present the two declarations to be uttered when farmers brought the first fruits to the Temple each year – one of the few instances in the Torah where a precise wording is laid down for an ordinary person to say to God.
Why was this wording used? To show that they had moved from shame to glory – the journey we are supposed to relive at the Seder. For this reason, we find this passage in the Haggadah.
The farmer had to declare before the priest, “I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land which the Lord swore to our fathers to give us”. This is the glory. What about the shame? This is followed immediately by a longer recital, which begins “Arami oved avi”. What follows is the story of how the people went down to Egypt and stayed there and became a great nation, and the people were oppressed by the Egyptians before being brought out by God, who had heard their cries.
Arami means someone who comes from Aram (ancient Syria). Oved means lost or losing, or it can mean to cause to be lost. Avi means my father or my ancestor. So the first translation offered for this formula is, “My father was a wandering Aramean”, referring either to Abraham (who came from Haran in Syria, so was an Aramean, but wasn’t lost) or Jacob (who fled from Laban, so was caused to be lost but wasn’t an Aramean).
The second translation offered is, “An Aramean (or Syrian) caused my father to be lost (or destroyed)”. The Aramean could be Laban and “my father” could be Jacob, whom Laban sought to destroy.
Rashi suggests, “When my father was in Aram, he was ready to perish”, meaning, “I didn’t inherit this land from my father – he was poor, but God gave us this great land”.
Rambam interprets the phrase as, “My father was an Aramean and exiled and I wandered like a lost sheep, but God gave us this land and now I’ve brought the first fruit of the ground to you”.
Some say that the Aramean must be Jacob because he went down to Egypt. Others say that it must be Abraham, who was born and raised in Aram (but he was also known as Avraham Ha-Ivri – Abraham the Hebrew.) Others say it refers to Laban, who could be said to have destroyed Jacob.
So we are left with two choices. In the first reading of this passage, the farmer brings his first fruits to thank God for having delivered him from Egyptian bondage and to acknowledge God’s bounty towards him. This could identify the farmer as a descendant both of Abraham and Jacob, but not Laban. You might think it is appropriate that the farmer should invoke the story of Jacob, whom God rescued from Laban the Aramean.
In a different reading, the farmer was actually a wandering Aramean – someone formerly in exile.
Whichever way you interpret it, the farmer’s story begins with wandering and ends with permanent settlement.
Perhaps we will be able to understand this enigmatic phrase better when we read it in the Haggadah in six months’ time.
Allan Myers is a Chartered Accountant. He began teaching at Edgware Masorti Synagogue and Gesher in 1988 and has completed a degree at Leo Baeck College in Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue.