Do we own land, prosper in business, or put food on the table entirely because of our own efforts? The book of Deuteronomy/Devarim says no. Moses tells the Israelites that they will conquer Canaan only with God’s help. (See my post Re-eih: Ownership.) Then they will acquire cities, houses, and farms that other people built. (See my post Eikev, Va-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?) After that they will build more houses, and all their enterprises will prosper, making their wealth increase. Moses predicts they will then forget God, and think:
“My ability and the power of my hand made me this wealth.” Then you must remember God, your God, who gives you the ability to make wealth …” (Deuteronomy 8:11, 17-18)
Furthermore, the Israelites must not confuse taking possession of land, or inheriting it from their fathers, with actual ownership.1
Hey! The heavens and the heavens of the heavens, the land and everything in it, belongs to God, your God. (Deuteronomy 10:14)
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you come”), Moses prescribes an annual ritual to thank God for the land we pretend we own, and for the harvest we pretend comes exclusively from our own labors.
You shall take some of the first of every fruit of the earth that you bring in from your land that God, your god, is giving to you. And you shall place them in a basket and go to the place that God, your God, will choose to let [God’s] name dwell. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:2)
The place that “God will choose” is Jerusalem.2 The head of each household brings the basket to the temple. and affirms that the land on which his family grew the fruits is a gift from God.
And you shall come to whoever is the priest in those days, and you shall say to him: “I declare today to God, your God, that I came to the land that God swore to our forefathers to give to us.” (Deuteronomy 26:3)
The priest sets the basket in front of the altar.
And you shall respond, and you shall say in front of God, your God: “Arami oveid avi. And he went down to Egypt and he sojourned there with few men, but he became there a nation great and powerful and populous.” (Deuteronomy 12:4-5)
Arami (אֲרַמִּי) = a male Aramean, a man from the country of Aram (roughly corresponding to present-day Syria).
oveid (אֺבֵד) = wandering lost; being ruined; perishing. (Oveid is the kal participle of the verb avad, אָבַד, and implies that the subject is lost, ruined, or perishing.)3
avi (אָבִי) = my father, my forefather.
Who is the Arami? The book of Genesis/Bereishit tells us that Abraham lives in the Aramean city of Charan (also called Paddan-Aram) before God tells him to go to Canaan. Later in Genesis, Abraham’s grandson Jacob flees to Charan and lives there with his uncle Lavan for 20 years before returning to Canaan. So we have three candidates for the Aramean in this declaration: Abraham, Lavan, or Jacob. And only two of those, Abraham and his grandson Jacob, qualify as a forefather of the Israelites.
Rashi4 identified the Arami as Lavan and the avi as Jacob. His interpretation, “Lavan sought to uproot everyone [all Jews] as he chased after Jacob,” requires translating Arami oveid avi as “An Aramean was ruining my forefather.” But oveid cannot mean “ruining”, only “being ruined”.(see 3) Furthermore, Biblical Hebrew grammar allows for an implied verb “to be” anywhere in the phrase Arami oveid avi, but not for the Arami to be the subject doing something to avi as a direct object.5 So Arami and avi must be the same person.
Rashbam6 recognized this, and identified the person as Abraham. He associated oveid with wandering when one is exiled from one’s own land, and rephrased Arami oveid avi as “My father Abraham, an Arami was he, oveid and exiled from the land of Aram.” Then he cited Genesis 12:1, where God tells Abraham: “Go forth from your land and from your relatives and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” If Aram is Abraham’s own land, Rashbam must have reasoned, then in Canaan he is an exile.
Calling Abraham an exile seems like a stretch to me. Abraham hears God and decides to leave. He brings along his wife, his nephew, the people who work for them, and the wealth he has accumulated in livestock and goods. It sounds like a comfortable emigration.
Rashbam’s explanation also fails to account for the sentence immediately following Arami oveid avi in Deuteronomy 12:5 above. Abraham and his household do visit Egypt, but the same group returns to Canaan after a very short sojourn there. They may pick up a few Egyptian slaves, but Abraham’s returning household is far from being “a nation great and powerful and populous”.
That leaves Abraham’s grandson Jacob as the Arami who is the speaker’s forefather. Jacob, a.k.a. “Israel”, moves to Egypt to join his son Joseph and brings along 66 of his descendants, not counting the wives of the adult men.7 These “children of Israel” stay in Egypt for 430 years.8 When they leave in the book of Exodus, there are “about 600,000 men on foot” along with their families and fellow travelers9—enough to count as a nation in the Ancient Near East. The sentence following Arami oveid avi fits only Jacob.
If Jacob is the Aramean and “my forefather”, why is he called oveid? The translation of oveid that best describes Jacob’s life at the time he emigrates to Egypt is “perishing”, since he and his extended family are suffering through a second year of famine in Canaan. Therefore, Arami oveid avi should be translated: “A perishing Aramean was my forefather”.
A man bringing his first fruits to the temple does identify himself as an Israelite with these three words, but it would be simpler to say “Jacob is my forefather” or “Israel is my forefather”. The clause Arami oveid avi acknowledges two other things: that his ancestors had not always lived in Canaan/Judah, and that at a critical time they were perishing in a famine. Remembering these things, the farmer is more likely to feel grateful that God gave the Israelites land, and that the God who makes famines has provided him with agricultural abundance.
The recitation and ritual actions continue in this week’s Torah portion without mentioning that they are part of Shavuot, one of the three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem dictated in the Torah. In Exodus 34:22 Shavuot is described as a celebration the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and in Numbers 28:26 Shavuot is identified as the “Day of First Fruits” (Yom Habikkurim).
But the recitation beginning Arami oveid avi has also become part of Passover/Pesach. In 220 C.E., when Judah HaNasi recorded the Mishnah (the core of the Talmud), the farmer’s declaration before the priest was already included in the seder (the Passover service at home around the table).10 It still is.
Arami oveid avi is a humbling opening line. If God could let Jacob, one of God’s favorite people, come close to perishing of hunger, any of us might be ruined. And every human being will eventually perish from this earth.
Yes, while we are alive we must cultivate our crops. Our own efforts are necessary, but not sufficient, for prosperity; other necessary factors are out of our hands. The good life is a fragile and temporary blessing.
May we notice the first fruit of every blessing in our lives, and express our gratitude.
(An earlier version of this essay was published in September 2011.)
- The real owner of the land is also revealed in Leviticus 25:23, when God declares: “But the land must not be sold to forfeit reacquisition, because the land is Mind; for you are resident aliens with Me.” (See my post Behar: Owning Land.)
- Modern critical scholars agree that the earliest form of book of Deuteronomy was written no earlier than the 7th century B.C.E., after the northern kingdom of Israel had been wiped out by the Assyrians, and the only remaining Israelite kingdom was Judah, with its capital and temple at Jerusalem.
- The piel participle, me-abeid (מְאַבֵּד = giving up as lost, ruining, letting perish) implies that the subject is abandoning, ruining, or destroying someone else.)
- Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
- In Biblical Hebrew, if avi were a definite direct object instead of a subject, it would be preceded by the word et (אֶת).
- Rashbam is the acronym for Rashi’s grandson, the 12th-century rabbi Shmuel ben Meir.
- Genesis 46:26.
- Exodus 12:40. (In Genesis 15:13 God predicts it will be 400 years.)
- Exodus 1:7, 12:37-38.
- Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 116a, Mishnah.