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Wandering Jews and Syrians – Parshat Ki Tavo

by Rabbi David Kasher, Kevah’s Senior Rabbinic Educator

Where exactly does our national story begin?

That is a question that arises every year at the Passover Seder, when we gather around a table to tell the tale of how we became a people. Where do we start? With Joseph’s being sold into slavery? The descent of Jacob’s household to Egypt? The rise of the new Pharaoh?

One answer is provided by the passage that opens this week’s parsha, in the Declaration of the First Fruits ceremony. The people are commanded, upon first entering the land of Israel, to take an offering from the first produce harvested in this new settlement, to bring it to the priest in charge at the time, and to recite the following:

“My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us, and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which you, O Lord, have given me.” (Deut. 26:5-10)

There we have one of the most succinct tellings of the Exodus, a journey into slavery and back to freedom in just five quick verses. It is not clear, however, what the opening phrase of this declaration is doing there, and what it adds to the story. “Arami oved avi” – “My father was a wandering Aramean.” The Aram region is a familiar Biblical landscape. It is located in modern-day Syria, and was home to several ancient Semitic tribes who shared the Aramaic language. But who is this Aramean father of ours, where was he wandering, and what does that have to do with the Exodus narrative?

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