Portion of the Week / Closing a circle
The story of this week's reading is stunning in its simplicity. It is the story of a dialogue, of a cry for help and of the response to that cry; all the rest is secondary.
After arriving in and settling the Promised Land, the Israelite is commanded to bring the first fruits of the harvest to the Temple and in so doing, recount concisely the manner in which he came to Canaan. This is the story as it appears in this week's Torah reading: "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. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. 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. 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. And He hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which Thou, O Lord, hast given me'" (Deuteronomy 26:5-10 ).
The above encapsulates, in essence, the entire history of the Jewish people from the time of our patriarch Jacob, to the exile in Egypt and the arrival in the Promised Land. On seder night, this terse account also serves as a summary of the Jewish people's history and, as seen in the Passover Haggadah, is also interpreted and analyzed in detail by the sages. In effect, the Haggadah is a Tannaitic commentary on the above passage in Deuteronomy; the Tannaim cited there examine each word in that passage, seeking to explicate its meaning: Who is the "wandering Aramean"? To whom do the words "my father" refer to? What is meant by the phrase "he went down into Egypt"? And by "few in number"?
The familiar details of the sages' commentary sometimes prevent the reader of the Haggadah from seeing the whole picture - that is, one that depicts the interesting choices and elements underlying the narrative's plot, and which creates what is in essence a highly unusual theological and historical story.
According to an early tradition, the first three Hebrew words in the passage in Deuteronomy, "arami oved avi" ("A wandering Aramean was my father" ), refer to Jacob. There is an ancient dispute over the precise interpretation of this phrase. According to Rashi, following the sages' lead, the subject of the sentence is Laban the Aramean who seeks to annihilate Jacob. Thus, Rashi interprets the word oved differently: as meaning "destroyed," or more precisely here, "sought to destroy." Thus, observes Rashi, the phrase in question actually means: "[Laban] the Aramean sought to destroy my father [Jacob]."
In criticizing this interpretation, Ibn Ezra argues that oved is an intransitive verb, and sees "my father" - Jacob - as the subject. Thus, he believes, the phrase means "Jacob was a wandering Aramean," an impoverished person from Aram.
According to Rashi, "arami oved avi" describes Jacob's journey from Aram to Egypt without any reference to the significant period he spends in Canaan, to selling Joseph into bondage, to the drought in Canaan, or to the other parts of the story. In Rashi's view, Laban pursues Jacob from Aram to Egypt and is the sole reason behind Jacob's journey (literally, descent - as in descent from Canaan ). According to Ibn Ezra, the verse does not provide any rationale for Jacob's journey to Egypt, but instead describes him in a different manner as a "wandering Aramean."
That interpretation makes no reference to the fact that, for Jacob, Aram constitutes only an intermediate way-station in his long trip from Canaan and then back to Canaan; nor, again, is there any mention of the reason for his journey to Egypt.
This exposition sums up the Book of Genesis and the opening of the Book of Exodus in a nutshell. The story of the patriarchs - from God's choice of Abraham until the final twist in the story of Joseph and his brothers - is erased from the narrative. The verb "[he] went down" refers back to "my father" (in Rashi's commentary, the subject of the verse changes midway ): Jacob journeys to Egypt and becomes a nation. The narrator switches into first person plural; he becomes part of the story. From this moment, the narrative becomes a collective autobiography: "And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage."
Only at this stage does God enter the picture for the first time. The hardships lead the Israelites to cry out to him and they are heard; at this point the Almighty immediately reveals himself, whereupon he leads his people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.
This is an unusual way of conveying the story of the nation's founding. The choice of beginning it with the story in Aram is not self-understood, and even creates the impression that the Children of Israel did not leave Canaan because they were never there. Thus, their arrival there is not a "return"; rather, it is as if they are entering a land that they have never lived in.
It then follows that settling in the land is not rooted in poetic-historical justice, but is rather God's choice. The erasure of the stories of the patriarchs transforms the geographical loop of departure from, and subsequent return to, Canaan into an axis that stretches from Aram to Canaan through Egypt.
But one detail is missing: that concerning the granting of the Torah at Sinai. The Israelites leave Egypt and arrive in Canaan without stopping en route. The major element of drama in this laconic story occurs when the Israelites cry out to God and he immediately responds and helps them. No text, no commandments are conveyed to them; the only components in the narrative are hardship and salvation.
The "Achilles' heel" of the innovative twist in the narrative thus lies in what it does not present - neither the giving of the Torah nor any historical "circle." Instead, it presents God's response to the cry of his children, and desire to bring them to the land that he has chosen.
The story of this week's reading is stunning in its simplicity. It is the story of a dialogue, of a cry for help and of the response to that cry; all the rest is secondary. It begins, as mentioned, with the image of "my father" and ends with the "fruit of the land, which Thou, O Lord, hast given me," which are brought to the Temple. Actually, the fruit is being restored to its source - to God; presentation of the fruit is accompanied by recollection of the long journey it took before arriving at the Temple. This is not the fruit harvested by Abraham or Jacob. This is new fruit, because the person who has come to Canaan is a new man. The connection between him and God was forged in Egypt and now he has arrived in the Promised Land. The circle that is closed in the passage concerning the first fruits is not a historical-geographical one, but rather one of dialogue between God and man that begins with a cry and God's response to it - and ends with man's return to God.
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