*"אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי"
The phrase “Arami Oved Avi” – appearing at the beginning of this week's parsha, Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:5)– sounds familiar to us. It is part of the declaration that the farmer makes when handing the bikkurim, the basket of first fruits which he or she brings to the priest at the Temple in Jerusalem. But we know it mainly because it’s part of a famous passage from the Passover Haggadah:
Go and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to Jacob our father. For whereas Pharaoh only decreed the death of the males, Laban sought to exterminate them all, as it is written ‘Arami Oved Avi’ - An Aramean tried to destroy my father.
We are biased. Our interpretation is biased because we usually remember only the Haggadah’s midrashic explanation - “An Aramean tried to destroy my father.”
Indeed, the widespread acceptance of this translation stems from the fact that Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitchaki), the great 11th century French commentator, cited this interpretation from the Midrash (Sifre on Devarim).
According to this interpretation, the grammatical structure is:
Arami [Laban] oved [sought to destroy] avi [Jacob]
where Arami (Laban) is the subject, avi – my father, the direct object, and oved, the transitive verb –destroyed. However, this explanation is subject to criticism from other commentators who find many difficulties with this interpretation. Does the verb "oved" actually mean "seek to destroy something"? And how is Laban connected to Yaakov’s going down to Egypt?
Only two generations later, Rashi's own grandson,Rashbam, provides us with a completely different take on those 3 Hebrew words. Rashbam says that this phrase means,
“My father Avraham was an Aramean lost and exiled from his birthplace, Aram.”
In other words, the grammatical structure is very different:
Arami oved [a wandering Aramean] was my avi [Abraham].
To support his position, Rashbam quotes the verses – at the beginning of Lech Lecha - where God tells Abraham to go forth from his homeland. In addition, he cites Abraham's own description of himself as a "wandering Jew." In the dialogue with Avimelech, the king of the Philistines, Abraham mentions:
And when God had me wander from my father's household, I said to her, 'This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, "He is my brother.” (Genesis 20:13)
In this interpretation, the root – a-v-d (א.ב.ד)–is an intransitive verb, meaning of “being lost.” Rashbam points out another verse in Psalms which has the meaning of “to be lost.” As any Hebrew speaker will tell you, it is also very much the sense of the word in modern Hebrew today, e.g. Ha-cellulari sheli avad (my cellphone got lost)!
Ibn Ezra, the great 12th century Spanish commentator and linguist, also weighs in against Rashi’s interpretation. He observes that the form oved is intransitive, and does not appear in the causative or transitive form one would expect to use if the meaning were “to destroy something.” If that were the case, that Laban is seeking to destroy Jacob, the verb should have been ma’avid or me’abed. For grammar lovers, these are different conjugations, binyanim, of the same Hebrew root: oved is the Kal form, ma’avid is Hiphil form, and me’abed is Piel form. The Torah’s use of oved points to an intransitive form of the verb, without any direct object.
Ibn Ezra’s other argument is rather persuasive:
What is the point of saying that Laban sought to destroy my father and he went down to Egypt when Laban had nothing to do with his going down to Egypt!
He therefore suggests another explanation with oved as an intransitive verb and avi as the subject. Under this explanation, the phrase would read as follows:
Avi [Jacob] was an Arami oved,
as if the text read: “When my father was in Aram he was ready to perish” i.e. poor and penniless.
According to Ibn Ezra, this fits into the theme of the entire declaration as follows:
I did not inherit this land from my father because he [Jacob] was poor when he came to Aram; he was too a sojourner in Egypt and was few in number. Afterwards, he became a great nation and you, God, brought us out of slavery gave us this goodly land.
Thus, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra agree on the grammatical structure of the verse, but they differ in the identity of “avi” – Ibn Ezra says it refers to Jacob, whereas Rashbam says it refers to Abraham.
Rushing to defend Rashi is the Maharal of Prague, the great 16th century scholar from Prague. As Nehama Leibowitz points out, the Maharal, in his super-commentary on Rashi, Gur Aryeh, answers Ibn Ezra’s attack on Rashi which– as mentioned above - was that it's not Laban who caused Jacob to go down to Egypt. The text, says the Maharal, is merely articulating in chronological order the misfortunes suffered by Jacob:
As first, it was Laban who was Jacob’s inveterate destroyer till God saved him, and then he went down to Egypt to suffer once more, till God again redeemed him from death.
Another commentator who answers Ibn Ezra’s attack on Rashi is the Abarbanel. He posits that Laban’s evil ways caused Jacob’s sons to feud, eventually leading to the selling of Joseph to Egypt, and the entire family going into exile in Egypt. Blaming Laban for the almost-deadly feuding between Jacob’s sons is somewhat of a stretch, and we leave to the reader whether this is a plausible explanation or a form of scapegoating.
Next we come to Seforno, the 16th century Italian commentator, who follows in the footsteps of Ibn Ezra:
Yaakov, who was for a while a wandering lost person without a home of his own, was not at the time able to establish a nation deserving or fit to inherit this land.
It is interesting to note Or Hachaim on these words. As part of his long commentary on this verse, he explains the word “avi” as referring to Adam, or Adam HaRishon, the Adam of Genesis! As befitting a kabbalist, he takes us on a long excursion into mystical dimensions, and sees in this verse a reference to “spiritual poverty” but that would be a digression from our discussion.
Let us ponder why we have this passage in our Haggadah. The late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik saw this aspect of hakarat hatov, being thankful, in both the declaration for the bikkurim and the recitation during the Passover Seder. It is a unifying aspect between the two rituals.
It seems the Haggadah strayed from the peshat, the simple, literal meaning of the text, because it had an agenda. Undoubtedly, one of the Haggadah’s main goals was to lift up the spirits of the Jewish people after the exile by the Romans, and to tell us that Hashem will redeem us, as He did when we were in Egypt. Furthermore, Rabbi Yehuda Nachshoni, in his collection of commentaries, takes the Hebrew letters of “Arami” and turns them (with a basic transposition of letters and new vowels) into “Roma'i,” or Roman, as a hint to the people that even though Rome had destroyed the Second Temple, Hashem will redeem us from this exile as He has redeemed us from all other exiles.
While this passage in the Haggadah maligns Laban, there are differing views among commentators about his character. Many don’t see him as an evil person but rather as a complex character who eventually listened to Hashem’s warning, and overcame his feelings of jealousy and hatred to make peace with Jacob, vowing never to hurt Jacob or anyone in his family (see Genesis 31:44-54). We will return to this fascinating discussion in more depth when we get to Parashat Vayetze. when we’ll have the opportunity to analyze the relevant verses and interpretations.
* This article was written together with Charles Shenitz from Silver Spring, Maryland.