promised land

beware lest you hold onto the land
so tightly that it hardens and
you find you are worshiping an idol
of stone
then you must go forth and
wander among the peoples
of the earth
make your way from one end
of the universe to the other
maybe then will understand
no matter where your footsteps may lead
wherever your eyes may seek me
wherever your spirit pines for me
there you will find
your promised

(Deuteronomy 28:58-68)

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?