This week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, includes within it a description of the intricate ritual the people were to engage in once settled in the Land of Israel. Moses commands them to place in a basket the first fruits of their harvest and to present them to the priests at the Temple. While doing so they are to recite a formula recalling they were slaves in Egypt, liberated by God, and given the land whose first fruits they now enjoy. They are also to set aside a tenth part of their yield for the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and they are to keep all the commandments given to them.
This ritual gets described in even great detail in the Mishnah (completed around 200 CE) and includes a description of the people being led up the mountain to the Temple by a dancing flutist and an ox adorned with gold, and being welcomed to the Temple by a chorus of Levites. Clearly this was a major event in the lives of our ancestors.
What I would like to focus on is the opening line of the formula recited by the people as they presented their first fruits. This formula, which later was to become part of the traditional Haggadah for Passover, began “arami oved avi…” which is usually translated as “My father was a wandering Aramean.” The formula continues: “He went down to Egypt and sojourned there…the Egyptians dealt harshly with us…We cried to God…God heard our plea…God freed us from Egypt…and gave us this land.”
Various commentators have asked: who exactly was this Aramean? Was it Abraham, whose mother was born and raised in Aram-naharaim? Or was it Jacob, whose mother also came from there? There are others who say, based on the fact that “oved” can also mean “oppress,” that the verse refers to Laban, Rachel and Leah’s father, who “oppressed my father” (remember, Laban forced Jacob to work a total of 14 years in order to marry Rachel and Leah). Since the verse continues that the subject went down to Egypt, it could mean either Abraham or Jacob, since both of them went down to Egypt at various times.
Whoever is referred to in this verse, it seems clear that the purpose of its recitation was to remind the people, as they presented their abundant harvest at the Temple, that they have come a long way since their humble beginnings. Maimonides, in his philosophical work “Guide for the Perplexed,” states that one reason this ritual was required was that “People who amass fortunes and live in comfort … often fall victim to self-centered excesses and arrogance. They tend to abandon ethical considerations because of increasingly self concerns.” And so the bringing of the first fruits while reciting this formula “promotes humility.”
In the words of Rambam (the acronym for Maimonides’ name), one can read the dual interpretation of “my father was a wandering Aramean” and “my father was oppressed by an Aramean.” In either reading, our history is one of wandering and oppression that ultimately ended in triumph. Yet in order to avoid the temptation to become haughty and self-satisfied, we must always remember our origins. We must remember that we were once homeless wanderers and that we were oppressed. In addition, if “Aramean” could refer to both our oppressors and to us, we are also reminded that we are often the ones who oppress ourselves. Through constantly seeking more “fruits,” more monetary gain, more prosperity, we seek to forget our beginnings as wanderers, but in so doing, we oppress ourselves by making it increasingly difficult to enjoy the fruits of our labors.
This joyous ritual of celebration should remind us, as we celebrate what we have accomplished, that we do come from humble beginnings; that we should not focus so much on achieving and possessing that we lose our sense of gratitude and humility, and with them our ability to enjoy what we have. Perhaps that is one reason why the verse is still a part of our Passover Seder today. It reminds us at that important time of the importance of freedom as well as gratitude for what that freedom allows us to enjoy.