My Father was a Wandering Aramean

Shabbat, September 5, 2015

“My father was a wandering Aramean.” Arami oveid avi. When we recite or hear these words, let us remember we’ve come from (our heritage by faith), give thanks for where we are now (our offerings by faith), and consider where we’re going (our destiny by faith). V’eemru? (And let us say?)

Here is what I chanted, from D’varim (Deuteronomy) 26:4-5 (TLV): “The kohen is to take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of ADONAI your God. Then you are to respond before ADONAI your God, ‘My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and lived there as an outsider, few in number. But there he became a great nation—mighty and numerous.”

Arami oveid avi. The Arameans dwelled to the northeast of Israel, in what is now Syria.  “My father was a wandering Aramean.” Do these words (or something similar) have a familiar ring? In most traditional Passover haggadot, they are the opening words of the answer to the 4 questions.

However, there is considerable rabbinic discussion about what the underlying Hebrew actually means. Who is the wandering (or lost, or a fugitive, or intended for destruction) Aramean?

The explanation offered in the most traditional haggadot is that of the Sages of the Talmud, and accepted by the great 11th century commentator Rashi, is: “Go and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to Jacob our father. For whereas Pharaoh only decreed the death of the firstborn males, Laban sought to exterminate them all, as it says: “An Aramean (Laban) sought to destroy my father.”

The 12th century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra, strongly rejected Rashi’s traditional interpretation, noting the problem with the grammar and the non sequitur with “and he went down to Egypt.” According to Ibn Ezra, the verse refers to Jacob, who, when he was in Aram, was lost, so it was Jacob who went down to Egypt with his family. Hence many translations render it as, “My father was a fugitive Aramean,” since Jacob was a fugitive in Aram (from Esau) and in Egypt (from famine).

However, Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson) argued that Abraham was the Aramean in question. After all, Abraham was from Aram and left his homeland, when HaShem said, “Lech l’cha! Get going!” Indeed, years later, Abraham told Abimelech, “When God made me wander from my father’s house” (Genesis 20:13). The Hebrew for “wander” here is not the same as in Deuteronomy, but Rashbam notes that the same Hebrew word does appear—and describes our father Abraham—in Ps.119:176, “I wandered [oveid] afar like a lost sheep.”

So, who is the wandering Aramean? Perhaps it is all of them—and all our ancestors, all our descendants, and all of us. For all our fathers—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all Bnei-Yisrael, the children of Israel—not only the 12 original sons but all their descendants—have been wandering Jews—and all of us are pilgrims in this life. V’eemru?

Perhaps we recite these words simply because it is our heritage; it is our lot in life; it is our destiny.

Let’s consider the context of this recitation. The chapter (and parsha) begins, “when you enter the land that ADONAI your God is giving you as an inheritance.” It was a word Moses gave to Bnei-Yisrael before they entered the land—so when they possessed it, they would not forget who gave it to them!

Then it continues, “You are to take some of the first of all the produce of the soil…” So Bnei-Yisrael was to make an offering of firstfruits—a thank offering to HaShem for our heritage. Were these firstfruits given at Bikkurim (an offering of barley) or at Shavuot (an offering of wheat)? Many cite these verses for special offerings whenever the Lord blesses them with a special blessing.

Then as I chanted, the kohen took the offering, and the giver recites these words, which go on for several verses, recalling the story of how HaShem delivered Bnei-Yisrael from Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” and brought them into “a land flowing with milk and honey. So now, look! I have brought the fruit of the soil that You have given me, ADONAI.”

Why did HaShem command this special offering of firstfruits? Perhaps, so that Bnei-Yisrael would not become complacent, believing that they had acquired this land or caused to bear fruit, by themselves. Perhaps because it is always good to give thanks for our blessings—and so appreciate the blessings!

Was this a command only for the one generation of Bnei-Yisrael who possessed the land  or is there something here for all the generations after them to remember and observe?

When we’ve arrived, we must be careful not to think we’ve arrived! V’eemru?

Since these words speak of the past (the heritage of the fathers) and also of the present (the offerings  of first fruits), could they also speak of the future (promise and destiny)? I believe so. After all, Moses recited these words to Bnei-Yisrael when there were still on the far side of the Jordan, gazing longingly over to the Promised Land—which was their destiny to possess and pass on to their children’s children.

Yet that Promised Land has come to represent something more than soil and produce. Hebrews 11:13, “These all died in faith without receiving the things promised—but they saw them and welcomed them from afar, and they confessed that they were strangers and sojourners on the earth.” The Patriarchs and Matriarchs were all strangers and sojourners—wanderers—on the earth. And so are we. V’eemru? Not only is my father (and my mother) a wandering Aramean, so am I.

So Hebrews 11:14-16 continues, “For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking  a homeland. If indeed they had been thinking about where they had come from, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they yearn for a better land—that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.”

Abraham wandered from Aram to the Promised Land and right on through it down to Egypt and back. Jacob wandered back up to Aram and eventually back to the Promised Land and then down to Egypt. Bnei-Yisrael wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before getting to the far side of the Jordan. Their descendants have wandered to all the corners of the earth. How poignant these words must be to Jews whose fathers and grandfathers came to America from Russia or Romania or Poland? Or to Israelis whose forbears have been coming back to the land from every corner of the earth?

Yet how much more poignant these words are to all people, when faced with the reality that life is short, that our time on this planet—at least in these body—is temporary—for we are all strangers and sojourners—like our father the wandering Aramean—on the earth.

Anyone who believes this earth is all there is a sad and pitiful figure. Yet those who knows where they have come from and where they are going, ultimately, may be full of joy and thanksgiving. V’eemru?

Philippians 3:13-14, “But this one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal for the reward of the upward calling of God in Messiah Yeshua.” We are all pilgrims, straining and pressing toward the goal. Not only should we remember where we’ve come from (our heritage), but where we’re going (our destiny, goal). It is good to have goals, to look forward., to pursue the reward—in this life and in the life to come.

So all our goals should ultimately be tied to how they will stand before the Judge, the Messiah.

When I plan our Synagogue & Community House, I think not only about how it as a place to worship and live out our lives together in this life—I also hope that the Lord will allow it to be a place of worship and community in the age to come, when He shall reign over all the earth.

So let us press on to the goal, and whatever we do, let us do it all as unto our Lord & Messiah. V’eemru?

This sermon may not to be reprinted in whole or in part without the express written consent of Messianic Rabbi Glenn D. Blank of Beit Simcha.  Your generous support for our ministry and building project is appreciated!

Questions for Breakout Discussion

Who was the wandering Aramean, according to the Sages and Rabbis?

When we recite these words, “My Father was a wandering Aramean,” who is the wandering Aramean for you?”

Why is it important to remember our past as our heritage?

Why did HaShem command Bnei-Yisrael to make a special offering of firstfruits?

Is there something here for all the generations after Bnei-Yisrael to remember and observe?

When we’ve arrived, why must we be careful not to think we’ve arrived?

How has the Promised Land come to represent something more than soil & produce?

How many of you believe in and yearn for a better land–a heavenly one?

Why is this conviction important, in this life? how does it affect what you do and why you do it today?

How would you explain how this trust and its importance to others, who aren’t so sure?

How do these words, “My father was a wandering Aramean” relate to what our congregation is about to experience? What perspective does the portion give us?

What about our goal of building a Synagogue & Community House–what perspective does this portion give us?

What are some goals you have for your own life? When you are pursuing your personal goals, why and how can you take into account how HaShem sees it?

This sermon may not to be reprinted in whole or in part without the express written consent of Messianic Rabbi Glenn D. Blank of Beit Simcha.  Your generous support for our ministry and building project is appreciated!

 

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