Commentary on Parashat Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1 - 29:8
Often, people ask me about the biblical and rabbinic roots of Zionism. Questions such as, “Is it a mitzvah (commandment) to live in Israel?” or “Haven’t Jews always lived in the Diaspora, after all, the Babylonian Talmud, the textual cornerstone of Jewish life and law, was written in Babylon, wasn’t it? Why is it important to live in Israel?” Another common one is, “Moses never even got to Israel, the Torah was given in the desert, lots of religious Jews live and have lived outside of Israel, right?”
Well, this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, opens with a section which, I believe, addresses these questions, and serves, therefore, as the foundation of religious Zionist thinking. The Jewish tradition considers these verses, and the concepts and sentiments contained within them, to be so important that it commands every Jewish farmer in Israel to read them every year during a ritual that took place in the Temple at this time of year — in the summertime, between the Pilgrimage Festivals of Shavuot and Sukkot. This ritual is Bikkurim, the first fruits, in which every farmer in Israel is commanded to come every year to Jerusalem with the first fruits he has harvested of certain basic crops and present them as a gift to the priests in the Temple.
The central element of the ritual is the speech, contained in these verses, which the farmer is commanded to make every year at this time. In addition to the reading of these verses by the farmer when he brings his bikkurim, and, of course, the annual reading of them as part of the weekly Torah portion, the Rabbis also included them as one of the central elements of the Haggadah, which we read every year at the Passover Seder. That’s how much importance the Jewish tradition attaches to these “Zionist” verses. Let’s take a look at them:
“When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the first fruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name and say to the priest in office at the time, ‘I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us.’
“The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. Then you shall declare before the Lord your God [this is where the speech each farmer must make begins, and it is from here that the Haggadah begins quoting and discussing this text]:
“My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, and they gave to us hard labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me.
“And you shall place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him. And you and the Levites and the strangers among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household.”
Whether we read these verses in synagogue as part of the weekly portion, or in Jerusalem as we bring our gift of the first fruits, or at the Passover seder, as a central part of the Haggadah, we cannot help but be struck by the strength, beauty, and clarity of the message expressed. The sense of thankfulness for having come home after years of difficult wandering (“He brought us to this place and gave us this land”), of being rooted not only in a geographical place but also in a society, a faith community, and in a nexus of gratitude, caring and charity (“And now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me,” “And you and the Levites and the strangers among you shall rejoice”) is strong, and is emphasized by the recurring use of three words: “bo” (to enter, arrive at, or bring), “aretz” (land), and “natan” (give).
Various forms of the word “bo” — to enter, bring, arrive — are used seven times in our section, referring to God’s bringing the Jewish people out of Egypt and into Israel, and paralleling that with the farmer entering the city of Jerusalem and bringing the first fruits to the Priest in the Temple. Our yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, during which we bring the first fruits, and rejoice with “the Levites and the strangers among you” parallels the kindness of God’s bringing us out of Egypt and into the Holy Land.
“Aretz” — land — is mentioned five times in the section (and “makom” — place — is mentioned twice). This focus on place, on the rootedness and sense of belonging that the Israelite is meant to feel, is thus emphasized, and presented as a crucial element in the farmer’s story. When we repeat this story every year at the Passover table, we are stating that it is not only the Jew who stands in the Temple in Jerusalem who is meant to have this strong sense of place. Every Jew, everywhere, every year, is meant to retell his national tale, his own and his people’s’ history, from the same ‘place,’ from a sense of rootedness in the land that God has promised to our forefathers and to us.
“Natan” is used negatively when referring to the Egyptians–“and they gave to us hard labor,” and positively, in terms of God’s generosity–“…the land the Lord your God is giving you,” “He brought us to this place and gave us this land.” It is also striking that the section of the Torah which immediately follows this one deals with certain laws of the tithes which “you shall GIVE to the Levite and the stranger and the orphan and the widow.” The generosity of God in giving us the Land of Israel is contrasted with the cruelty of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and is meant to be echoed by our own generosity to others.
The major difficulty in these verses is in the farmer’s opening words, which is where the Passover Haggadah begins quoting this section, as mandated in the Mishnah in Tractate Pesachim: “Arami oved avi”–“my father was a wandering Aramean.” Who is this father, why is he called an Aramean, and why was he wandering?
Different commentators are divided as to whether this refers to Jacob, who is here called an Aramean because his grandfather, Abraham, was originally from Aram, and/or because he spent many years in Aram hiding from his brother Esau and working for his father-in-law Laban, or to Abraham and his ancestors, who originally came from Aram. The Haggadah, in fact, does not understand these words to mean any of the above options, but reads them, rather, as “the Aramean [identified as Laban, Jacob’s tricky father-in-law] tried to destroy my father.” Some time after Lavan’s attempt to destroy him, Yaakov eventually made his way to Egypt, where the story continues with the Egyptian oppression of the Jews.
If this speech is meant to be a synopsis of Jewish history, taking us from the horrors of slavery in Egypt to the joys of freedom in Israel, why begin with such a cryptic reference to our forefathers? Why this lack of clarity as to how our national history begins? How is it that the tradition has not decided how, and in reference to whom, our story begins?
I think that the different interpretations of “Arami oved avi” must be taken together. “My father was a wandering Aramean” stresses the fact that we began as wanderers, not in our own land, not rooted in a country and community, and known by a name which was borrowed from others and whose meaning is now not clear to us. That situation of wandering, of homelessness, is not in opposition to, but, rather, should be closely identified with “The Aramean [Laban] tried to destroy my father.” The wandering, the lack of rootedness, the lack of context, leads to violence and hatred being aimed against us. We are, in such a situation, subject to the whims of those around us, we are victims.
I think it is also suggestive that in the two interpretations, both we and our oppressors have the same name — Aramean. In exile, our very identity is in fact a threat to us, our existential condition is inherently threatening. The confusion among the commentaries as to what this opening phrase means parallels the confusion of the reality the phrase describes; out of our land, out of our community, out of our historical narrative, it really is unclear who we were, where we were going, and what was happening to us. Our identities in Exile were limited to that which threatened us.
It is only once our situation as wanderers/victims is rectified, and we arrive and thrive in our own land, and see ourselves as actors in a coherent narrative, that we can begin to function as the individuals, and society, we were meant to be. Only once we are rooted in a knowledge of and gratitude for God’s kindness, and understand ourselves in terms of that kindness, and are grateful for it, can we commit ourselves to echoing that kindness with the help we give to others.
For me, all the basics of classical Zionism are expressed in these few verses; the confusion, uncertainty, and dangers of Exile–the way it shrinks our identity to that of rootless victim. The moral, theological, and historical underpinnings of our presence in the Land of Israel, and the possibilities which that presence opens up for us. And, crucially, the commitment to social justice and communal concern which, as a result of our claiming our own place in this Land and within this narrative, devolves upon each and every one of us.
Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.
Pronounced: huh-GAH-duh or hah-gah-DAH, Origin: Hebrew, literally “telling” or “recounting.” A Haggadah is a book that is used to tell the story of the Exodus at the Passover seder. There are many versions available ranging from very traditional to nontraditional, and you can also make your own.
Pronounced: MISH-nuh, Origin: Hebrew, code of Jewish law compiled in the first centuries of the Common Era. Together with the Gemara, it makes up the Talmud.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: YAH-kove or YAH-ah-kove, Origin: Hebrew, Jacob, one of the Torah’s three patriarchs.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.