“A Wandering Aramean?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo, Moses, facing the final days of his life, informs the people what to expect will happen once they enter the Promised Land, conquer it, and allocate the land to the tribes.

In order to show their gratitude to G-d for His constant kindness, the Hebrew farmers are instructed to take בִּכּוּרִים , bikkurim, several samples of the first ripened fruits and crops of the seven special species for which Israel was known, bring them to the Temple and give them as a gift to the Kohanim, the priests, as thanks for all G-d’s kindness.

The Talmud, in Sukkah 47b, describes the colorful ceremony of dedicating the Bikkurim. The Kohen placed his hand under the hand of the owner, and together they lifted and waved the basket filled with new fruits. The farmer then took the basket back from the Kohen and recited a special declaration, underscoring the fact that none of the very special events, from the Exodus until the peoples’ arrival in the Land of Israel, could have happened without G-d’s gracious intervention.

The basket was then laid down before the altar and presented as a gift to the Kohen, to the Temple, and to G-d.

The farmer’s beautiful declaration is recorded in Deuteronomy, 26:3: הִגַּדְתִּי הַיּוֹם לַהשׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ כִּי בָאתִי אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע השׁם לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ לָתֶת לָנוּ, “I declare today to the L-rd your G-d, that I have come to the land that the L-rd swore to our forefathers to give us.”

The owner of the Bikkurim basket calls out before G-d the following statement found in Deuteronomy 26:5, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט, וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב, An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather. He descended to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation–-great, strong and numerous.

This declaration is followed by a description of the Egyptian mistreatment of the Israelite slaves and G-d’s response to the cries of their forefathers. The Al-mighty rescued the downtrodden slaves, bringing the people out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and bringing them to this place, the land flowing with milk and honey. The farmer then proclaims, Deuteronomy 26:10, וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר נָתַתָּה לִּי השׁם, And now, behold! I brought the first fruit of the ground that You have given me, O L-rd!”

This dramatic declaration underscores the need to thank G-d, not only for the survival of the Jewish people in the face of the constant attempts to destroy them, but also for the extraordinary material success of the Jews. In every situation where Jews were given an opportunity to show their talents, they flourished.

Despite the beauty and intensity of the declaration, the rabbis are challenged by one phrase found in the opening declaration. In Deuteronomy 26:5, the farmer calls out, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, “An Aramean tried to destroy my father!” Who is the Aramean referred to in this verse? What is the meaning of the word “oved?” And why is the verb in the present tense, if it’s referring to the past?

The Rashbam suggests that אֲרַמִּי , Arami, clearly refers to our forefather Abraham, who hailed from Aram-Naharaim, Mesopotamia. The word אֹבֵד , oved, meaning “lost,” refers to the fact that Abraham was exiled from place to place, and even when he finally settled in the Holy Land, he moved from settlement to settlement like a lost sheep. However, the phrase, “and then there he became a nation–-great, strong, and innumerous,” is difficult to apply to Abraham, unless it refers to Abraham’s descendants.

In his early years, the great Abraham had to leave his homeland Aram, Mesopotamia, because of his hostility to idolatry. When he moved to Canaan, and began to prosper, he was subject to many challenges from the local inhabitants. He even had to buy a grave for his wife Sarah at a greatly inflated price. Who would ever believe that he would rise to such great heights?

The Sforno and Rabbeinu Bachya, suggest that Arami, alludes to our forefather Jacob, who is referred to in the Bible as an “Aramean” because of the many days he dwelt with his father-in-law, Laban, in Aram. He is called oved, lost, or poor, because he too was terribly impoverished.

Onkelos concludes that Arami, refers to Laban, the Armenean. Oved Avi, refers to the fact that Laban tried to destroy our forefather Jacob who is described as going down to Egypt. This statement appears in the declaration of Bikkurim to underscore the gratefulness that the People of Israel have to G-d for their survival, especially in light of wily enemies like Laban.

Rashi  also concludes that Arami, refers to Laban. Laban was prepared to destroy everything when he chased after Jacob, which is the interpretation that is recorded in the Passover Hagaddah. Fortunately, because of Divine intervention, Laban did not succeed in destroying our father Jacob.

Even though Laban himself admits that G-d Al-mighty prevented him from destroying the Jewish people, his true nefarious intentions were obvious. It could very well be that Laban would not have physically harmed the family of Jacob. However, causing the family of Jacob to assimilate with Laban’s family would have meant the end of the Jewish people.

That is why Laban is considered even more dangerous than Pharaoh. Pharaoh is an open enemy, whereas Laban is a secret, hidden enemy, who pretends to love his family.

The Ohr HaChaim sees the entire portion regarding arriving in an “exalted land,” as an allusion to arriving in the “ultimate world” of G-d, meaning heaven, where every Jew will bring before G-d the first fruits of the labors he performed in this world.

The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh maintains that in addition to declaring before the Al-mighty the good deeds that were performed during one’s lifetime, every Jew will also have to apologize. The wily Aramean, is the יֵצֶר הָרָע , Yezter Hara, the evil inclination, who tries to constantly deceive every person. Because the evil spirits constantly try to destroy our souls, the word oved, is mentioned in the present tense, rather than the past.

To save us from the evil inclination, every Jew needs to regularly cry out to G-d. Without His help, we cannot survive.

May you be blessed.