This week we have a curious verse in the ritual of Bikkurim, the offering of the first fruits: When the first fruits of a crop are gathered they are brought in a basket to the priest and offer them while saying the following:
5 And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.[Deuteronomy 26]
While the bikkurim does not happen since the destruction on the Temple, the phrase a wandering Aramean was my father does as part of the Passover seder:
MISHNAH. THEY FILLED A SECOND CUP FOR HIM. AT THIS STAGE THE SON QUESTIONS HIS FATHER; IF THE SON IS UNINTELLIGENT, HIS FATHER INSTRUCTS HIM [TO ASK]: ‘WHY IS THIS NIGHT DIFFERENT FROM ALL [OTHER] NIGHTS… AND ACCORDING TO THE SON’S INTELLIGENCE HIS FATHER INSTRUCTS HIM.15 HE COMMENCES WITH SHAME AND CONCLUDES WITH PRAISE; AND EXPOUNDS FROM ‘A WANDERING ARAMEAN WAS MY FATHER’ UNTIL HE COMPLETES THE WHOLE SECTION. [Pesachim 116a]
Every time I read a wandering Aramean was my father I’ve wondered who this Aramean is. I at first assumed it was Abraham, who traveled through the Aramean world, though that does not makes snase to the next phrase. While Abraham did go go down to Egypt. He did not become a great mighty and populous nation there. On the other hand Jacob did. So this wandering Aramean might be Jacob.
Interestingly, the Rabbis of the Talmud and early Rabbinic Judaism also had a problem with this phrase. The common language of the time was Aramaic, not Hebrew. Much of the common people did not even know Hebrew, so Aramaic translations,targumim in Aramaic, of the Hebrew text began to show up in the Jewish world. While intending to give an accurate translation of the Hebrew, like any translation it does takes some interpretation of the text, and often can be used to understand the literal biblical text. The most literal of these, Targum Onkelos, is often found as a commentary in traditional Hebrew bibles for the Torah, makes some interesting additions:
Laban the Aramean sought to destroy our father.
The two other major Targumim to Torah , Yonatan ben Uzziel and Neofiti 1 also have similar emendations, though they add specifically that our father is Jacob, and that God saved Jacob from Laban’s plans to destroy him from their first meeting onward.
Midrash Rabbah also reflects this interpretation:
R. Berekiah said in R. Levi’s name: It is written, The blessing of the destroyer (obed) came upon me (Job XXIX, 13). ’ The blessing of the destroyer (obed)’ alludes to Laban the Syrian, as it says An Aramean sought to destroy (obed) my father (Deut. XXVI, 5). ‘ [Genesis Rabbah LX:13]
This interpretation is possible due to the double meaning of the Hebrew root ABD ( אֹבֵד). The root can mean to wander, or its more common meaning is to destroy. Since the word isn’t clear, the Rabbis take the word Aramean to mean the man from Padan-Aram, Laban.
While once again pointing out Laban’s duplicity is a legitimate interpretation, what does it really have to do with the Bikkurim? What does offering the first fruits of your yield have to do with somebody trying to kill an ancestor? In context with the rest of the text, there is reason to use the word wandering instead of destroy.
6 And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage.7 And we cried unto the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. 8 And the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders. 9 And He has brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which Thou, O LORD, hast given me.’ And thou shalt set it down before the LORD thy God, and worship before the LORD thy God.
For most of the people’s time, they were wanderers. Abraham moved around, as did Isaac and Jacob. The generations between Jacob and Moses were foreigners in a land their entire stay. Only after crossing the Jordan and setting up farming in the Land are they a permanent people.
The Mishnah for Pesachim tells us we start with “a wandering Aramean was our father” to indicate shame. The gemara commenting on this give two meaning for Shame:
What is ‘WITH SHAME’? Rab said: ‘Aforetime our fathers were idolaters’; while Samuel said: ‘We were slaves.’ [Pesachim 116a]
In sense both Rab and Samuel are right. Both are shameful. Yet the text continues with an odd story:
R. Nahman asked his slave Daru: ‘When a master liberates his slave and gives him gold and silver, what should he say to him?’ ‘He should thank and praise him,’ replied he. ‘You have excused us from saying “Why [is this night] different?”’ observed he. [Pesachim 116a]
The slave, still being a slave, only thought of his freedom and riches he could have. The freed, prosperous person needs to think of more, of how he used to live, of how his life was before the bounty he has now. To do so is to keep it in context. Are we as person not completely settled? Are we a person who might have others seeking to destroy us? Things used to be bad. We can ask “Why is is this night different?” only when there has been change and we are aware of it.
I think back over the years. Thinking back only three years ago, I was a very different person, a very lonely one. In the years that have followed, my life has changed radically, a year later I was dating, though still lonely. A year later I was and adjusting to Sweetie living with me. Next year at this time, Baruch Hashem, I will be her husband. There is a lot of joy in my life right now, more than there has ever been. Both Sweetie and I have worked hard on building a great relationship, but I must always remember it was God who got us together in the first place, and guides us every step of the way. The formula said at Bikkurim that was adapted for Passover is there to remind of where we were, and who got us here in the first place.
That is the point of the formula. Things were bad. Appreciating that things were bad, and who got us out of those bad spaces, we can properly thank God for the bounties in our lives. We can also appreciate those who are still under the threat of destruction, and those who still do not have the power to control their own lives.
As Elul winds down and we get ready for the Days of Awe, one can appreciate that, and begin to wonder how in the next year we can change that so others have the bounty we have.