My Father, the Wandering Aramean…

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, God instructs the Israelites, upon entering the Promised Land, to offer up the first fruits of their harvest. They are then to recite a short narrative of their history, beginning with their earliest ancestors and ending with their own arrival at the land.

This narrative, made famous by its central place in the Passover Haggadah, begins thus:

My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation…” (Deuteronomy 26:5)

The opening words of this passage have been the subject of considerable controversy for centuries. According to most commentators, the “wandering father” is identified as Jacob. This would certainly fit neatly into the Biblical narrative, as Jacob did indeed go down to Egypt with his sons during a period of famine.

In the traditional Passover Haggadah, however, the Rabbis translate the Hebrew “My father was a wandering Aramean” (“arami oved avi“) very differently.  By changing the vocalization of the Hebrew “oved” (“wandering”) to “ibed” (“destroyed”), they render the text to mean: “An Aramean sought to destroy my father.” (The Haggadah identifies this would-be murderer as Laban who, by threatening Jacob, “sought to uproot us all.”)

So which is it?

In true Jewish fashion, the debate rages on. Among the classical commentators, Rashi supports the Haggadah’s reading, while others, including Ibn Ezra adhere to the conventional interpretation. Rashbam accepts the “wandering Aramean” interpretation as well, but identifies the wanderer as Abraham rather than Jacob.

Beyond the fancy hermeneutics, however, I’m struck by the two spiritual models suggested by these respective translations. One highlights our wanderings, identifying our peoplehood with our collective seeeking – our desire to journey toward a better and more blessed future. The second model suggests we are essentially a hunted and hated people, forever on the run from those who would seek our destruction.

These two readings illuminate a critical question that inform our collective Jewish self-understanding to this very day.  Centuries later, the question remains: with which narrative will we identify?  The narrative in which we are the perpetual victim or the spiritual seeker? Does our story forever pit us against an eternal enemy – or does it ultimately celebrate our sacred purpose and the promise of blessing?


5 Comments on “My Father, the Wandering Aramean…”

  1. vickie korey says:

    Not only will this post add an element of learning to our next Passover Seder Brant, but you hit upon such an important notion of how we view ourselves and in turn how we respond to others. If we are a wandering nation, then we feel compassion and understanding for those also wandering and seeking a better life. If we view ourselves as victims, then a “me first” mentality tends to follow and we do what is best for ourselves. How will we think of ourselves is indeed an important question.
    Thanks so much for once again providing us with insight and thought provoking questions for the week.

  2. Thanks Vickie! I love what you say about the virtues of wandering and its potential to instill compassion and empathy within us. It’s such an important and critical issue for me – I’m honored you would include this for discussion in your next seder.

    (Spring can’t come soon enough!) :)

  3. rbarenblat says:

    Thank you for lifting up these questions. The last paragraph of your post especially resonates with me this morning. Which of these two narratives will we claim as our own? My hope and prayer is that we can choose the story in which we are perpetual spiritual seekers… kein yehi ratzon!

  4. […] When you enter into the land, Torah tells us, be conscious of where you are and what you’re doing. Bring the fruits of your labors as a gift to God. And then say, out loud, a passage which many of us may recognize from the Pesach haggadah, one which begins “My father was a wandering Aramean…“ […]

  5. abunudnik says:

    Changing vocalizations is a nice parlor trick for fantasists but it’s nonsense. Ibn Ezra was right to disparage the practice.


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