Rabbi Susan P. Fendrick is an editor, writer, teacher, and spiritual director. A graduate of Brown University, she received rabbinic ordination in 1995 from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship program. Her writing appears in numerous books and publications.
There is very little language of personal prayer recorded in the Torah, and even less prescribed liturgy for future Jews to recite. But one rare example of a liturgical text appears in this week’s Torah reading—a prayer that supports the pursuit of conflict resolution and peace-seeking.
The entire book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ swan song, his last chance to convey everything he must to the Israelite nation before they enter the land of Israel without him. In Parshat Ki Tavo, he offers a formula that each Israelite should recite when bringing the “first fruits” offering on the holiday of Shavuot. That recitation was discussed in the APN Peace Parsha last June, and I want to offer a further reading of its opening words, which speaks to all that we have to bear in mind as we work for a peaceful and secure future for the state of Israel.
The recitation begins with the vague Hebrew formulation “arami oved avi”—either “an Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather” or, in other readings, “My father was a wandering Aramean”—and continues “and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there, he became a great, mighty, and numerous nation.” This statement is followed by recounting—lush with the repeated language of “we” and “us”—the cruel treatment at the hands of the Egyptians, crying out and being heard by God, who brought us out of Egypt and to “this place” and “this land…flowing with milk and honey”.
The individual making the offering is further instructed to prostrate themselves, to rejoice in all the good that God has granted to their household, to those who serve in the Temple (the Levites) and to the stranger who dwells among them—that is to say, to all strata and elements of society.
Interestingly, this recitation appears not in our inherited Shavuot liturgy, but in the haggadah for Passover! In all likelihood, it is read at Passover because the content of the recitation exactly recalls the message of Passover, and even more, does so in the first person. It is hard, then, to imagine a better or more succinct expression of the rabbinic dictum--which also appears in the haggadah--“In each generation, a person is obligated to see herself as if she personally went out of Egypt.” This brief narrative offered in liturgical form would seem to be the perfect fulfillment of that rabbinic teaching.
But what, exactly, does the retelling convey—and express? It is the statement of one who has arrived in the land of Israel, after oppression, liberation, and deliverance. The language of a “dual narrative” may be familiar to us as we strive to hear the stories, experience, and historical understanding of Palestinians alongside those of Jewish Israelis, with an eye to a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--so complex that it is referred to euphemistically (and perhaps sardonically) as “the situation”, hamatzav. The recounting in the arami oved avi passage, in its own way, offers a dual narrative of a different kind—the two-stranded narrative DNA of the Jewish people. Is it the story of one who has known pain and suffering at the hands of those who sought to destroy her, and vows never to allow her people to suffer it again? Is it the tale of someone who has known homelessness and instability, who understands first-hand what oppression can do to a people and what liberation can mean? Yes. It is all of these, and more.
My mother is a survivor of the Shoah. She and her family escaped extermination through a combination of hiding and being on the run. For her, this has always meant two things: Never again for us. And never again for others. She is vigilant about naming anti-semitism and worse where she sees it. And her experience fleeing, hiding, always fearing for her life has given her deep empathy for those who struggle to find a safe refuge and a home, including Central American refugees and LGBT people.
Someone tried to destroy my mother. She wandered. She arrived in a promised land—and vowed never to forget.
“An Aramean tried to destroy my father” and “my father was a wandering Aramean”… We carry the memory of victimization, which should keep us vigilant, and of eons of wandering, which should stoke our empathy. With the Jewish people now in “the land”, we bring to bear the legacy of this doubled tale. It calls us simultaneously to self-preservation and other-orientation, working both for Israel’s security and for a peaceful and just resolution to “the situation” (believing them to be inseparable), even—especially—when that resolution seems painfully elusive.