Ki Tavo: A Perishing Aramean

August 29, 2018 at 8:12 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo, Passover/Pesach, Shavuot | Leave a comment

Still life by Caravaggio, 1605

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.

Bible card by Providence Lithograph Co., ca. 1900

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 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/PesachIn 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.)

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. The piel participle, me-abeid (מְאַבֵּד = giving up as lost, ruining, letting perish) implies that the subject is abandoning, ruining, or destroying someone else.)
  4. Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  5. In Biblical Hebrew, if avi were a definite direct object instead of a subject, it would be preceded by the word et (אֶת).
  6. Rashbam is the acronym for Rashi’s grandson, the 12th-century rabbi Shmuel ben Meir.
  7. Genesis 46:26.
  8. Exodus 12:40. (In Genesis 15:13 God predicts it will be 400 years.)
  9. Exodus 1:7, 12:37-38.
  10. Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 116a, Mishnah.

Ruth: The Use of Power

May 17, 2018 at 9:33 pm | Posted in Proverbs, Ruth, Shavuot | Leave a comment

After seven weeks of counting measures of barley, as prescribed in the Torah, Jews get to celebrated the holy day of Shavuot (“Weeks”).  (See my post Omer: Counting 49.)  The special reading for this weekend is the book of Ruth, a story that includes two Shavuot themes: the barley harvest, and embracing a covenant with the God of Israel.

Ruth Gleaning, by R.F. Babcock, 19th century

Ruth is a native of Moab, a young widow who chooses to leave her land and follow her widowed and impoverished mother-in-law Naomi to a potentially bleak future in the Israelite town of Beit Lechem.  Ruth commits herself to Naomi, her god, and her people.  After they arrive, she gleans barley in fields belonging to Boaz, a wealthy and devout Israelite.

Both Ruth and Boaz are admirable for their kindness.  Ruth goes beyond her duty by committing herself to Naomi and doing whatever it takes to support her mother-in-law.

from Ruth and Boaz, by E.C.F. Holbein, 1830

When Boaz first sees Ruth gleaning in one of his fields, he praises her, asks God to bless her, gives her lunch, orders his men not to touch her, and tells them to leave extra stalks of barley in the rows for her.  Eventually Boaz goes beyond his duty by marrying Ruth and taking both women into his household.

The book praises Boaz and Ruth not only for their kindness and loyalty to family members they have no obligation to help, but also for the ways they use power.

And Naomi had a kinsman through her husband, an ish gibor chayil from the family of Elimelekh, and his name was Boaz.  (Ruth 2:1)

ish (אִישׁ) = man.

gibor (גִּבּוֹר) = champion, hero in battle, respected man in a community.  (From the root verb gavar,גָּבַר = excelled, accomplished, prevailed.)

chayil (חַיִל) = power.  By itself, the noun chayil = army or wealth—the two main kinds of power in the Ancient Near East.  When the word is immediately preceded by a noun indicating a human individual (such as ish or gibor), chayil serves as an adjective meaning powerful, leading in battle, influential due to wealth or social standing, or highly capable.

Boaz is introduced as an ish gibor chayil, a respected and powerful man.  As the story unfolds we learn that his power comes from his wealth and his standing in the town of Beit Lechem.  He is one of the elders who sits at the town gate to judge cases.  His opinions are respected, and in the legal case the book of Ruth describes, the other elders follow Boaz’s lead.1

Not all wealthy men use their power to do good.  The prophets Isaiah and Amos rail against the wealthy who supply themselves with luxuries while oppressing the poor.2  But Boaz uses his power to ensure justice in his town, good behavior among his workers, and provisions for two impoverished widows, Ruth and Naomi.

Although Boaz goes out of his way to be kind to them during the harvest, it does not occur to him to make any arrangement for them after the harvest is over.  So Naomi tells Ruth when Boaz will hold a harvest celebration for his men on the threshing-floor, and instructs her to bathe, anoint herself, dress up, and hide nearby until all the men have eaten, drunk, and dozed off.  Then she must uncover Boaz’s “feet” and lie down next to him.3  Naomi concludes:

“And he will tell you what you should do.”  (Ruth 3:4)

Both women understand the risk; Boaz might use his position to marry her, or he might take advantage of his position to use her and cast her aside.  Ruth answers:

Everything that you say to me, I will do.”  (Ruth 3:5)

On the threshing floor, artist unknown

She follows Naomi’s instructions, and then goes beyond them when Boaz wakes up.

In the middle of the night, the man gave a start, and felt around.  And hey!  A woman was lying at his feet!  He said: “Who are you?”  And she said: “I am Ruth, your maidservant.  And you shall spread the wing [of your robe] over your maidservant, because you are a redeeming kinsman.”  (Ruth 3:8-9)

Ruth practically orders Boaz to spread his wing over her, and tells him he should be her redeemer.  Technically the redeemer of a childless widow is her late husband’s brother.  He is required to redeem the widow from poverty by marrying her, giving her a son, and taking care of her late husband’s land until her son is old enough to inherit it.4  But both of Naomi’s sons are dead, as well as the rest of the men in their immediate family.  Boaz is only a distant relative, not even the closest one on the family tree.

Nevertheless, he feels honored that Ruth is telling him to marry her.

And he said: “Blessed are you to God, my daughter!  Your latest chesed is better than the first—[your] not going after the young men, whether poor or rich.  And now, my daughter, you must not be afraid.  Everything that you say to me, I will do it, because all [the elders] at the gate of my people know that you are an eishet chayil.”  (Ruth 3:10-11).

chesed (חֶסֶד) = loyalty to family obligations; kindness.

eishet (אֵשֶׁת) = woman of.  (From the noun ishah,  אִֺשָּה= woman, wife.)

Boaz is an ish chayil, powerful because of his social standing in Beit Lechem.  Now he declares that the elders of the town consider Ruth, an impoverished foreigner, an eishet chayil.  Clearly her power does not come from either wealth or military prowess.  But she is a highly capable worker, and she has earned a sterling reputation because of her steadfast chesed to Naomi.  Boaz respects her so much that he promises “Everything that you say to me, I will do.”

That is exactly what Ruth said to Naomi.  The sentence also echoes the words of the Israelites at Mount Sinai, when Moses reads the scroll of the covenant out loud to the people, and they reply: “Everything that God has spoken, we will do.”5  All three replies commit the speakers to complete trust and devotion.  Ruth is devoted to Naomi, Boaz becomes devoted to Ruth, and the Israelites declare their devotion to God.

The phrase eishet chayil appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible.  The other two occurrences are in the book of Proverbs.

An eishet-chayil is a crown for her husband,

            But one who acts shamefully is like rottenness in his bones.  (Proverbs 12:4)

The book of Proverbs ends with a long encomium to the eishet-chayil, beginning with:

An eishet-chayil who can find?

            Far beyond rubies is her value.

Her husband trusts her in his heart,

            And lacks no profit.  (Proverbs 31:10-11)

The poem then describes how an eishet-chayil works long hours spinning and weaving, collecting food and feeding her whole household, acquiring land and planting vineyards.  Her arms are strong.

Her palm she spreads out to the poor,

            And her hand she extends to the needy.  (Proverbs 31:20)

Like Boaz, an eishet chayil uses the wealth she increases through her own work to give to the poor.

Her mouth opens with wisdom,

          And teachings of chesed are on her tongue.  (Proverb 31:26)

By calling Ruth an eishet-chayil, Boaz explains why he will do everything she says.  Like the eishet-chayil in Proverbs, Ruth uses the power of her example and influence to counsel wisdom and kindness.

The poem about the eishet-chayil concludes:

Extol her for the fruit of her hand,

            And her deeds will praise her at the gates.  (Proverbs 31:31)

The ideal eishet-chayil, like Ruth, is praised for her deeds by the elders at the gate.


Both Boaz and Ruth are instinctively kind and loyal, full of chesed.  Both have personal power, chayil; Boaz because of his wealth and social standing, Ruth because of her good example.  Even Naomi has moments when she uses the power of her influence to do good.  She provides for one daughter-in-law by persuading her to return to her parents in Moab, and provides for Ruth by arranging a marriage from behind the scenes, following her hunch about Boaz despite the risks.

The book of Ruth begins with the deaths of three men whose widows lose everything, but it has  an extraordinarily happy ending: the women of Beit Lechem visit Boaz’s house, where he is happily supporting his pleasant old relative Naomi; his young, capable, kind, and loyal wife Ruth; and their newborn son, who will carry their dreams into the future.6

Sometimes people who have power to influence our lives are not so virtuous.  Sometimes, despite our good intentions, we fail to help those around us.  But the book of Ruth demonstrates that power can be dedicated to good deeds and kindness.

May each of us notice acts of kindness with gratitude, and practice using our own power to be kind to others.

  1. Ruth 4:1-13.
  2. g. Isaiah 1:16-17, 1:23-24, 10:1-3, 58:5-7; Amos 8:4-6.
  3. In the Torah, regalayim (רַגְלַיִם = pair of feet) is sometimes a euphemism for male genitals (e.g. 2 Kings 18:27, Isaiah 7:20), and legalot ervah (לְגאלּוֹת עֶרוָה = to uncover nakedness) is a euphemism for sexual intercourse (e.g. Leviticus 18:6-18).
  4. See Genesis 38:8-11 and Deuteronomy 25:5-10 for the laws of levirate marriage/yibum.
  5. Exodus 24:7.
  6. Oved, the son of Ruth and Boaz, is the grandfather of King David. (Ruth 4:21)

Re-eih: Recipe for Joy

August 18, 2014 at 3:44 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Re-eih, Shavuot, Sukkot | Leave a comment
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Sometimes joy comes unexpectedly. But sometimes we plan to rejoice on a particular occasion, acting with joy and thus inducing a feeling of joy. This week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See!”), says that three times a year, everyone should rejoice.

Universal joy is required during the three annual pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  Although the Torah gives instructions for these three festivals in the earlier books of the Torah, this portion in the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim is the first one that mandates a pilgrimage to the central sanctuary even for Pesach.

Three times in the year all your males shall appear in the presence of God, your god, in the place that [God] will choose: on the festival of the matzot and on the festival of the shavuot and on the festival of the sukkot (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:16) 



matzot (מַצּוֹת) = unleavened bread. (This spring festival is part of Pesach or Passover.)

shavuot (שָׁבֻעוֹת) = weeks. (This summer festival occurs after counting seven weeks of the barley harvest, and includes bringing the first fruits and loaves of leavened bread to the priests at the sanctuary.)

sukkot (סֻכּוֹת) = huts, temporary shelters. (In Exodus this autumn festival is called the festival of the asif, “ingathering”, and pilgrims donate products from their threshing-floors and wine-presses. Leviticus adds the rituals of dwelling in temporary huts for seven days.)

…and they shall not appear in front of God empty-handed; each man [shall give] according to the giving-capacity of his hand, according to the blessing that God, your god, has given to you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:16-17)

Only Israelite men are required to make the three pilgrimages to the central sanctuary (which was in Shiloh for about 370 years, and Jerusalem for about 1,000 years).  But this week’s portion also encourages women, children, and slaves to go, while recognizing that the journey may not be possible for pregnant or nursing women. Each head of a household must bring the second tithe (a donation for the priests and the temple administration), and a sacrificial animal for God. But the donations must be in proportion to the family’s wealth, so nobody’s joy is dampened by having to give more than they can afford.

Pilgrimage for Sukkot

Pilgrimage for Sukkot

In the Torah’s previous instructions regarding the three festivals, rejoicing is mentioned only once, when Leviticus 23:40 says to take branches from four species of trees and rejoice for the seven days of Sukkot.

But in this week’s Torah portion, rejoicing is called for three times, once in the instructions for Shavuot and twice in the instructions for Sukkot.

(Although this Torah portion does not specifically mention rejoicing during Pesach, later passages in Ezra and Chronicles 2 mention rejoicing in Jerusalem during this festival.)

The requirement for rejoicing in the portion Re-eih includes the Levite, stranger, orphan, and widow, who were not mentioned in any of the earlier instructions on the three festivals. During Shavuot, the Torah portion says:

Rejoice in the presence of God, your god—you and your son and your daughter and your man-servant and your woman-servant, and the Levite who is within your gates, and the foreigner and the orphan and the widow … (Deuteronomy 16:11)

And during Sukkot:

Rejoice in your festival, you and your son and your daughter and your man-servant and your woman-servant, and the Levite and the foreigner and the orphan and the widow who are within your gates. Seven days you shall celebrate a festival for God, your god, in the place that [God] will choose, because God, your god, will have blessed you in all that comes to you and in all the doings of your hands, and there will be for you only joy. (16:14-15)

Feeling joy might be easy for the landowner who brings his offerings to the sanctuary, since he gives in proportion to his means, and he is celebrating that God blessed his agricultural endeavors with success.

But when the Torah addresses this landowner, it informs him that his family and his servants or slaves must also feel joy during the festivals. Furthermore, the Torah gives examples of four classes of people who are unlikely to own land or other independent means in a society built around inheritance through the male line: the Levites, whose pasture land is restricted and depend on donations; foreigners, who can lease but not inherit estates; orphans who have no fathers to provide for them; and widows, who are dependent on the mercy of relatives unless they have wealthy sons.  The Torah says that all of the disadvantaged people who live in the landowner’s town or village must also rejoice during the three festivals. Their joy becomes the landowner’s responsibility.

What can he do for them? According to the commentary of 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, he must arrange for those who cannot travel to rejoice at home.  Everyone who can travel must come with him to the central sanctuary, to experience the joy of celebrating in the national community, whose people are dedicated to one god, and to one another.

Hirsch added that these festivals are also times that God appointed to meet the people at God’s sanctuary. The awareness of God’s presence, he wrote, brings the purest joy.

In the 11th century, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) wrote that the phrase I translate above as “there will be for you only joy” means that if you bring everyone to God’s chosen place for a festival, God promises you will be happy.

I have observed this effect in my own life. Occasionally happiness lifts me when I am alone; more often it comes when I am with my beloved. But when I am singing with my congregation at services, my heart almost always rises. The only times this communal singing does not bring me joy are when someone in the group looks angry or miserable.

The unhappy people are like the poor foreigners in the Torah, alienated from the community where they live. Sometimes these “foreigners” cannot come to the place where God is; they are unable to travel spiritually. Then those of us who have greater means, like the landowners in the Torah, must make arrangements to help them rejoice in the spiritual state where they are.

Other times, the unhappy “foreigners” are able to travel, if we carry them with us. The Torah tells us not to neglect them, but to bring them to God’s place to celebrate with us.

Then “there will be only joy”. Complete joy happens only when everybody contributes, and nobody gets left out.


Ruth: What’s in a name?

May 22, 2012 at 10:55 pm | Posted in Shavuot | Leave a comment

This Saturday evening the Jewish holy day of Shavuot (“Weeks”) begins. Shavuot comes at the end of seven weeks of counting of the omer, a measure of harvested barley, every day.  Originally, Shavuot was a summer pilgrimage festival, when farmers brought the “first fruits” of their harvests to the temple. After the fall of the second temple in the year 70, Shavuot became the annual celebration of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. So why do we read the Book of Ruth, the story of a Moabite convert, on Shavuot?

It was in the days of the judging of the judges, and there was a famine in the land, and a man went from Bethlehem of Judah to be an expatriate in the fields of Moab–he, and his wife, and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelekh, and the name of his wife was Naomi … (Ruth 1:1-2)

Naomi = My sweetness. She must have lived up to her name, at least in Moab, or her daughters-in-law would not have cried at the idea of parting from her.

Elimelekh died in Moab, and their two sons married Moabite women.  After about ten years with no offspring, the two sons died.   Then only the three widows remained: Naomi and her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth. Naomi heard that the famine in Bethlehem was over, and she headed back to her old home.  Her daughters-in-law followed her, but Naomi insisted they should return to their own mothers’ homes instead, where they would be more likely to remarry.

They raised their voice and they wept again.  And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law (goodbye), but Ruth clung to her. (Ruth 1:14)

Orpah = from oref = nape, back of the neck; dripping.  The Talmud pointed out that Orpah dripped tears, while Ruth Rabbah (rabbinic commentary compiled around the 6th century) noted that “she turned her back on her mother-in-law”.

Then Ruth said her famous words:  Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back from following you; because where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay; your people will be my people, and your god will be my god.  Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried … for (only) death will separate me from you. (Ruth 1:16-17)

When they came to Bethlehem, Naomi told the women of the city:  Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the bitterness of God to me is extreme. I was full when I went, and God has brought me back empty. (Ruth 1:20-21)

If only Mara were spelled the same way as mar = bitterness, Naomi’s remark would be straightforward.  However, the Hebrew text spells Mara with the letter alef at the end, and that changes the word to “apparition” or “mirror”. Perhaps Naomi had become so empty, so despairing, that she was only a shadow or reflection of her former sweet self. Perhaps she was like a ghost, the walking dead. She did not even introduce Ruth, the young stranger beside her.

Ruth (pronounced “Root” in Israeli Hebrew) probably comes from the same root as riutah = she drenched, she provided abundant drink. The Talmud said Ruth’s name foretold that her great-grandson David would drench God with songs and hymns.  Ruth Rabbah traced her name to a similar word with the letter alef in the middle, ra-atah = she saw, she perceived. According to Ruth Rabbah, Ruth was perceptive, considering carefullythe words of Naomi. More recent scholars speculate that Ruth comes from a similar word with the letter ayin in the middle, reut = female neighbor or friend; striving, aspiration.  Ruth was a faithful friend to Naomi even when Naomi gave up hope; and she never stopped striving to improve their lot, always working hard and thinking fast.

Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem destitute.  Ruth supported them by gleaning barley and wheat, and she chose to glean in the fields of Boaz, one of Elimelech’s relatives. When the harvest ended, Ruth, following Naomi’s instructions, came to Boaz in the night and suggested that he marry her.  As a childless widow, Ruth was entitled under Israelite law to get a son through her dead husband’s closest male relative.  This “levirate marriage” would “redeem” her dead husband’s inheritance.

Boaz was not the closest relative, but he was the most willing, and by the end of the book, he had married Ruth and given her a son. In an all-around happy ending, Naomi’s life was redeemed through her grandson. This boy, Oveid, became the grandfather of King David.

So why do we study Ruth on the holiday of Shavuot?

Like Shavuot, the book is about first fruits: Ruth gleans barley, the grain that is counted before Shavuot, and wheat, the grain the Israelites brought to the Temple on Shavuot in the form of loaves of bread.

The book of Ruth also addresses the other theme of  Shavuot, the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. Ruth is Judaism’s supreme example of a convert, and not just because of her famous words of commitment to Naomi and her religion. Traditional Judaism sees Ruth as the convert who merited being the great-grandmother of King David. What does conversion have to do with Sinai?  The Vilna Gaon, an 18th-century rabbinic authority, declared that everyone at Mount Sinai was a convert, because there was no Jewish religion until God gave the Torah to the people there–to the Israelites and to those who came with them out of Egypt.

For me, the names of the women in the Book of Ruth also comment on conversion and attachment to a religion. Naomi represents the native Jew, in both her sweetness–the blessing of giving so many blessings –and her bitterness, the mirror of her past suffering. Orpah, who turns her back on her mother-in-law’s religion and stays in Moab, reminds me of someone who converts to Judaism when she marries a Jew, but does not take the religion seriously. Ruth is the passionate convert, always striving. Even if other Jews ignore her, she keeps pouring her soul into the cup of kindness and offering it again and again.  She is also perceptive, seeing when to act, when to speak, and when to hold her peace. May we all be granted Ruth’s passion, her willingness to give, and her insight.


Last week we finished the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. This week we begin the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, as the Israelites get their marching orders.  (At least, the tribes are counted and appointed their camping positions on the journey ahead, and the Levites are given their duties for disassembling and transporting the mishkan, God’s dwelling place.  It takes a lot of organization to move all those people and all those holy items  from one camp to the next.)

I will be on a personal retreat during the month of June, organizing my own life, so I won’t be posting any new “Torah sparks” for the next month. If you are looking for a spark of inspiration on any Torah portion in the first half of the book of Numbers, you can go to my website,, and click on the tab “Blogs by Torah Portion”.  You’ll find my postings for the last two years on Numbers/Bemidbar. I’ll be back with new sparks in July!

Vayikra: Gifts to the Giver

March 23, 2012 at 9:58 am | Posted in Bereishit, Passover/Pesach, Shavuot, Vayikra | 1 Comment

Imagine you own nothing.  You are homeless, penniless, hungry.  Then someone gives you a farm with good soil, crops in the ground, and seeds.  All you have to do is work the farm and trade your harvest for everything else you need. The farm still belongs to your benefactor, but he or she lends it to you rent-free for your lifetime, and you can even pass it on to your children.

As soon as begin to feel secure, you are moved to thank the farm’s actual owner.  So you send your benefactor a nice selection of its produce.  Maybe you also include a loaf baked from the wheat you have grown.  It’s the best you can do to express your gratitude, and perhaps your humility.

This is how I imagine ancient peoples felt when they made sacrifices to their gods.  They knew their lives depended on the gifts of rain, sun, and soil, as well as the plants and animals that were already in the world before humans came along.  People wanted to recognize this by making a formal expression of humble gratitude, a gift to pay homage.  But how could they deliver their gift?  Some cultures made idols for their gods to inhabit, and set their gifts in front of the idols.  But the ancient Israelites shunned idols.  Until they built the sanctuary for God to dwell in, the only address they knew for God was “the heavens”.  So they built altars, laid offerings on them, and burned them, sending the smoke up to the sky.  It was the best they could do.

The first offering to God in the Torah is Cain’s.

And it happened, at the end of a period of time, that Cain brought from the fruit of the ground a minchah for God.  And Abel, he also brought, from the firstborns of his his flock and from their fat …  (Genesis/Bereishit 4:3-4)

minchah = gift to a superior, homage, tribute, offering to a god

The Torah does not say whether Cain and Abel built altars and burned their offerings.  But it is clear that the first offering to God is Cain’s minchah, consisting of the fruits of his harvest.  Abel follows his brother’s lead by offering animals from his flock to God, and the Torah also calls this offering a minchah.

The rest of the offerings mentioned in the first two books of the Torah, Genesis/Bereishit and Exodus/Shemot, all appear to be animals, and none of them is called a minchah. That word is used again a few times in Genesis, but only for gifts from one human to another.  Jacob gives a minchah to his estranged brother Esau to butter him up, and Joseph’s brothers bring a minchah to him when he is the viceroy of Egypt, for the same purpose.  The Torah uses other Hebrew words for animal offerings.  The standard procedure in Genesis, starting with Noah, seems to be building an altar out of stones, laying firewood on it, slaughtering the animal, and burning it.

In the book of Exodus, the instructions for offerings to inaugurate the sanctuary include the word minchah three times, and all three refer to an offering that is neither an animal sacrifice nor a libation.  Are we returning to Cain’s vegetable offering?  The first Torah portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra answers with a technical definition of the proper types of minchah:

And a soul who would bring near an offering of minchah (homage) to God, his offering shall be wheat flour; and he shall pour oil over it and place frankincense upon it. And he shall bring it to the sons of Aaron, the priests, and one shall scoop from it … a memorial portion on the altar, a fire-offering, a fragrant aroma for God.   (Leviticus/Vayikra 2:1-2)

The Torah then describes four ways the minchah can be cooked before it is offered.  The mixture of flour and oil can be baked into loaves of unleavened bread, or into flat bread wafers.  It can be fried on a griddle, or cooked as soft dough in a pot.  But it must always be sprinkled with frankincense, and then salt, before a piece of it is burned up into smoke. Furthermore, the bread of the minchah must never be left to rise, and it must never include fruit syrup:

Any minchah that you bring near for God you shall not make leavened, for you must not make any sourdough or any syrup go up in smoke with a fire-offering for God.  You shall bring them near to God as an offering of first-fruits, but they shall not be upon the altar, nor go up as a fragrant aroma.  (Leviticus 2:11-12)

Later the Torah describes the annual offering of first-fruits on Shavuot, which also includes an offering of two loaves of leavened bread from each pilgrim.  These offerings are presented to the priests at the sanctuary, but no part of them is burned on the altar.

Why does a minchah have to be unleavened and unsweetened, while offerings for Shavuot, the Day of First-Fruits, include both leaven and fruit syrup?

There may be a connection between the observance of Passover, when no leaven may be eaten, and the observance of Shavuot exactly seven weeks later, when the bread brought to the priests must be allowed to rise.  Yet the Torah describes Passover as a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, and Shavuot as a harvest festival.  (Shavuot was not associated with the revelation at Mount Sinai until much later, after the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E.)

I believe the key difference is that a portion of every offering of unleavened, unsweetened bread is burned on the altar to make smoke for God, while leaven and syrup are given to the priests with a ritual recitation instead of burning.  (See my blog “Ki Tavo:  The Perishing Aramean”.)

Plain flour and oil, whether cooked or not, represents basic subsistence.  This makes an unleavened flour or matzah offering an expression of humility and gratitude that God makes life possible at all.  Sourdough loaves and fruit syrups are examples of foods that go beyond basic subsistence, providing the luxury of pleasant tastes. As offerings, these foods express gratitude for a richness of life beyond what is strictly necessary to survive.

The offering of gratitude for the bare fact of life is turned into smoke.  Perhaps the smoke is not only a metaphorical fragrance for God to enjoy, but also a sign of the evanescence of life.  We are lucky to have life at all — and all too soon, we fade away.  But we are grateful for every moment of life.

The offering of gratitude for luxuries and extras is not turned into smoke.  It is a way of rejoicing that the early harvest is going well, that life is going well, with surpluses to enjoy.  We can rejoice out of the fullness of our hearts, without any grim reminders of death.  But we only indulge in this kind of gratitude once a year, as spring turns to summer.  The rest of the year, we still need the reminder of the smoke.

Ki Tavo: The Perishing Aramean

September 13, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo, Passover/Pesach, Shavuot | Leave a comment

A ritual harvest pilgrimage opens this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you come in”).

It will be, when you come in to the land … then you will take some of the first fruits  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 …  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:1-2)

And the priest shall take the basket from your hand, and he shall set it down before the altar of God, your god.  Then you shall respond, and you shall say before God, your god:  “A perishing Aramean was my forefather (Arami oveid avi), and he went down to Egypt …”  (Deuteronomy 26:4-5)

Arami = an Aramean, someone from the country of Aram (roughly corresponding to present-day Syria)

oveid = perishing, becoming lost, being destroyed, nearing ruin

avi = my father, my forefather

The Talmud provides a detailed description of the ritual of bringing the first fruits of the year, the bikkurim, to the altar of the second temple in Jerusalem.  But the second temple was destroyed in the year 70, and by 220, when Judah HaNasi recorded the Mishnah (the core of the Talmud), the first part of the declaration before the priest had already been transplanted into a different ritual:  the Passover seder.  Although Passover is observed at home in the spring, it does center around the story of the exodus from Egypt, and for at least 1,800 years, the traditional opening of the story on Passover is “Arami oveid avi”.

I translate “Arami oveid avi” as “A perishing Aramean was my forefather”.  It’s a straightforward translation, but not all translations are so direct.

One approach, used by the 3rd-century commentary Sifrei and the 11th-century commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak), claims that the phrase means  “An Aramean was destroying my forefather”.  According to this approach, the forefather is Jacob, and the Aramean is Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law and opponent in the book of Genesis.  I’ve noticed that some classic commentary makes every effort to attribute additional evil deeds to the enemies of the patriarchs of Israel (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).  Here, the commentary has to make a stretch by claiming that  avi (my forefather) is the direct object of a verb in “Arami oveid avi”.   But according to the usual grammar of biblical Hebrew, the Aramean and the forefather in this phrase are the same person, who is described as being oveid.

Many modern haggadot (books of Passover ritual) translate the phrase as  “A wandering Aramean was my forefather”.  It’s true that all three patriarchs were nomadic herdsmen who wandered from place to place.  But I think “wandering” is a poor translation, reflecting a desire to avoid saying anything negative about one of the patriarchs.  Every other time any form of the word oveid appears in the Torah,  it has to do with perishing, ruin, or destruction.  For example, Deuteronomy 30:18 says:  “I tell you today that you will certainly perish; you will not live long upon the earth …”

So a direct reading of “Arami oveid avi …” is that the declarer’s forefather was an Aramean who was perishing, and who then went down to Egypt.  This could describe either Abraham or Jacob, since both lived in Aram for part of their lives, and both traveled to Egypt when there was a famine in Canaan.  Calling this forefather an Aramean emphasizes his insecure status as a resident alien in Canaan.  Calling him “perishing” points out that famine was threatening the man’s life; he and his family were perishing from hunger.

In contrast, the Torah tells the Israelites that once they have taken over Canaan, they must bring the first fruits of their fields and orchards  to the temple.  They are blessed with food only because God did not inflict a famine upon them.  The offering of first fruits expresses gratitude and acknowledges that humans, and plants, are dependent on God.

Over and over the Torah reminds us not to be smug when we prosper, because our prosperity is not due entirely to our own efforts; our success also depends on the grace of God.  The ancient Israelites expressed gratitude for divine gifts through offerings of food plants and animals, just as Jews for the last 2,000 years have expressed gratitude for divine gifts through prayers.

In this week’s Torah portion, the phrase Arami oveid avi, “A perishing Aramean was my father”, reminds us that even God’s favorite people, such as Abraham or Jacob, might perish.  As some American have learned since the  economic crash of 2009, and others learned after the crash of 1929, we can never count on personal prosperity, even if we do all the right things.

Yes, we must cultivate our crops to get nourishment from them.  Our own efforts are necessary, but not sufficient.  The good life is a fragile blessing, a temporary gift.  Let’s appreciate every good thing while we have it.  Let’s notice the first fruit of every new blessing in our lives, and lift up our souls by expressing our gratitude.

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