The lesson of Shavuot - Arami Oved Avi

Peace_Parsha_Logo185Written by Rabbi Jonah Geffen for APN.

Rabbi Jonah Geffen serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaare Zedek. A member of the New Shul's Rabbinic Havurah, Rabbi Geffen was the National Rabbinic Director for the J Street Education Fund and spent two years as a Marshal T. Meyer Rabbinic Fellow at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side.


The Torah instructs the Israelites how to celebrate the upcoming holiday of Shavuot:

In the book of Deuteronomy (ch. 26) we read that upon entering and dwelling in the Land of Israel, the people are to take the “first of all the fruit of the ground” (v. 2), bring it to a designated place, and give it to G-d. As the priest takes the produce, the person who has brought it is to state as follows:

(26:5) And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God: ‘Arami oved avi, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous…. (10) And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which Thou, O LORD, hast given me…

Arami oved avi. A seemingly simple phrase can actually be understood in two very distinct ways. Rashi, the 11th century sage sees a past of survival and near genocide. He focuses on the narrowly escaped destruction of the Jewish people. Rashi explains that when the pilgrim brings first fruits “He mentions the loving kindness of the Omnipresent saying, arami oved avi - an Aramean destroyed my father, which means: “Laban wished to exterminate the whole nation” when he pursued Jacob” (Rashi on Devarim 26:5). He emphasizes that this fate is one of which we remain at risk: this (near destruction) happened to us. Genocide is in our immediate past, because this happened to my father.

However, Rashbam, the grandson of Rashi, understands these words - arami oved avi – to mean “ ‘my father Avraham was an Aramite, lost, and exiled from his birthplace Aram.’... The meaning of the word oved is similar to other words used to describe wandering without specific objective, almost like walking because one is lost... the recital by the farmer indicates ‘our forefathers came to this land from an alien country and now G-d has given it to us.” (Rashbam on Devarim 26:5) Rashbam emphasizes that we, too, are wanderers like our ancestors. We are seeking a place to feel secure, a home in a world that does indeed have the capacity for kindness, the ability to provide a secure home even if we have not yet achieved it. It is, basically, an optimistic view, not a fearful one.

These two views of the bikkurim are a challenge to us even today. We have received our land. And now, when we enter the holiday of Shavuot, although we no longer bring first fruits in the absence of the Temple, we are faced with a choice: Arami Oved Avi. Do we choose hope, or fear?

Both are “true.” We have escaped national genocide – we can remember it, it happened to “our father” a generation ago; we have entered the land, in hope, a generation ago, as well. But our future depends upon which of these we choose to emphasize: Do we allow fear to make us live in a way where there is no choice but endless war? Or do we choose hope, believing that we can build a secure home for ourselves, living in peace with our neighbors?