Written 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.