Monday, January 19, 2015

Martin Luther King Day and the World's Oldest Trombone Player

What is the connection between Dr. Martin Luther King Day and the world's oldest trombone player, Seymour Greene? 

My son, Niv, answered this question and gave the following Dvar Torah in synagogue this past week:  

As we read about the ten plagues in this week’s parsha, Va’era, we come across a startling verse.
Prior to the plague of hail, God warned Pharaoh to gather his flock and his slaves in from the field to the houses, so that they should not be killed by the hail.
And lo and behold, some of Pharaoh’s servants listened to this warning, and they are described as God-fearing people:  


 "Those among Pharaoh’s courtiers who feared the word of the Lord brought their slaves and livestock indoors to safety." (Exodus 9:20)

From this we learn that there were God-fearing Egyptians! Apparently, even at the highest levels of government, some of the Egyptian courtiers did not support the diabolical plans of the tyrant Pharaoh, and realized they should be listening to the God of the Hebrews.

And last week we read about the 2 midwives – who, according to Josephus, Abravanel, and Shmuel David Luzzato (Shadal), were Egyptian midwives.  And if so, by refusing to kill the Jewish baby boys, they defied the order of their own government, practicing civil disobedience!  

Why did they do this? The Torah tells us:

The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live. (Exodus 1:17)

Again we see the concept of Egyptians “fearing God” – which is another way to say that they disobeyed a law because it was against their conscience.

Today we also celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King weekend, and we have in our shul someone who did the right thing – at a time when everyone else was doing the wrong thing!

Our own Seymour Greene!

I’m going to talk about you, Seymour, but don’t worry, it’s because you did some good things!!!

Seymour was the trombone player in Irving Berlin’s famous band called “This is the Army” which played for tens of thousands of American soldiers during World War II, in the European, Pacific and Middle Eastern theaters.

Seymour's band was the first racially integrated unit in the U.S. Army. Seymour says everyone in the show felt so strongly about it, that if they arrived at a camp, station or city that was segregated, and the African-American cast members were told they would have to sleep and eat separately, the whole cast and crew would join the African-American soldiers in the "colored" barracks.


This action of standing up for justice and equality, in  the face of evil discrimination, makes us proud to have Seymour among us. It is only because of the brave actions of people like Seymour that “we shall overcome.”  



Friday, January 2, 2015

Jacob Curses His Sons to Send Us A Message

(Published today in the Washington Jewish Week)


In this week’s sedra, Vayechi (Genesis 47:28 - 50:26), Jacob sends an unequivocal message to his sons – and to all of us – against the use of collective punishment.
On his deathbed, Jacob gathers his sons around him to hear his farewell words, and addresses each son individually. Jacob bestows prophetic blessings to most of his sons, but curses Simon and Levi:
“Simon and Levi are a pair. Their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let my person not be included in their council, Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce, And their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, Scatter them in Israel” (Genesis 49:5-7).
Why this terrible condemnation of his own two sons? Jacob never forgot the brutal killings carried out by Simon and Levi in response to the rape of their sister, Dinah. Simon and Levi had tricked the male inhabitants of Shechem into circumcising themselves, and, taking advantage of their weakness while they recovered, killed all the males of the city, capturing all the women and children and forcing them into captivity (Genesis 34:25-29).
In interpreting these events, we come upon two narratives: That of Jacob, who was appalled by the massacre, and that of Simon and Levi who responded: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (Genesis 34:31).
Jacob actually had two responses to the massacre. Immediately after it happened, he raised the pragmatic argument: The act is indefensible because it puts Jacob’s entire family at risk from the neighboring nations (Genesis 35:30).
Yet, when Jacob’s initial fears turned out to be groundless thanks to Hashem’s protection, the moral taint remained. At the momentous occasion of blessing his sons, Jacob does not hide his loathing for their act of revenge, and, instead of blessings, issues a curse, the likes of which we do not find in the entire Bible.
What was Simon and Levi’s justification? At first glance, it seems their motive was to avenge the “violation of family honor,” a concept apparently common at that time in the land of Canaan. But Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv, 1817-1893) finds an additional motive:
“Each of the two brothers had a separate motive for setting this fire: one came with the human emotion of avenging the family honor – such a fire is to be considered a foreign fire (esh zara). The other came with zealousness for God and without any personal considerations, and this fire is the fire of the Lord. Nevertheless, even with such a fire, one must take extreme care to direct its placement and timing, otherwise it can do incalculable damage” (Ha’amek Davar on Genesis 45:7).
In other words, only one brother was an avenger for Dinah’s honor, but the other was motivated by religious conviction and zealousness. Regarding that brother who acted “bearing God’s name in his mouth,” we must ask: How can a person purporting to have fear of heaven commit such violent acts?
Nahmanides (1194-1270) also rejects the use of religious justification for this act. He opposes Maimonides’ view that all the inhabitants of the city of Shechem were subject to the death penalty because they did not put Shechem, the individual, on trial for his rape of Dinah. In that way, they violated one of the Seven Noahide Laws (to establish a court system and judge criminals). Both Netziv and Nahmanides agree that justifying murder of so many innocents on halachic grounds is a gross misrepresentation of the Jewish law.
In his commentary HaMikra Kiphshuto, Shabtai Ben Yomtov (1848-1919) explains in a similar vein:
“The Torah gives the reason why Simon and Levi spoke with guile (bemirma); it was because they gave themselves a halachic permission, namely because Shechem had committed an outrage.”
In other words, Simon and Levi justified the spilling of innocent blood through twistedhalachic reasoning. One should not explain the massacre with the simplistic notion that “Simon and Levi were barbarians.” Quite the contrary, they were religious, intelligent, and knowledgeable in the Torah. But even such people are liable to use religion to promote violence, and sink to a level where they wipe out an entire city without realizing that they committed a moral crime of the worst order.
Later in Jewish history, we find another example of pseudo-halachic justification for acts of violence. The Talmud relates that a priest committed murder in the Temple itself:
It once happened that two priests were both running up the ramp of the altar to offer sacrifices, when one of them came within four cubits of his kinsman and the one took a dagger and plunged it into the heart of the other … to teach you that the laws of defilement of garments was of more import to them than spilling blood (Yoma, 23b).
This unthinkable event symbolizes the moral downslide that took place in the time of the Second Temple, showing that even scholars and priests were subject to moral vacuity.
Simon and Levi are thus examples of those among our ancestors who used religious and other justifications for collective punishment. Jacob’s curse teaches us that we must unequivocally reject this form of behavior. Collective punishment is an act for which there is no excuse.
As 2015 begins, we should recommit to this basic principle of Judaism, and treat every human being as created in God’s image, deserving of respect, dignity and liberty.
Questions for discussion:
Do you think most people are capable of such rationalizations?
How do we guard against this danger of being able to rationalize violent behavior?

Sunday, December 28, 2014

What Is A Jew Doing in Synagogue on New Year's Day, January 1?

When one of the minor fasts in the Jewish calendar occurs, do you sometimes get the feeling of "why in the world are we supposed to fast on this day"? Indeed, I don't feel a strong emotional connection to Tzom Gedaliah, Ta’anit Esther or the 17th of Tammuz – minor fasts commemorating  tragic events that happened thousands of years ago. 

But there is one exception. The upcoming Asarah B'Tevet fast, which happens to fall this year on Thursday, January 1, 2015, is a minor fast day which should be meaningful to the modern-day Jew.

Asarah B’Tevet, literally the Tenth of Tevet, was originally established to mark the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem which led to the destruction of the First Temple in the year 588 BCE. The siege is described in Kings II, 25:1-2:

Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon. And in the ninth year of his reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month [starting from Nissan, the tenth month is Tevet], Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. He besieged it; and they built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah.

Prophet Ezekiel explained the importance of this day as follows:

In the ninth year, on the tenth day of the tenth month, the word of the Lord came to me. O mortal, record this date, this exact day; for this very day the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem.
(Ezekiel 24:1-2).

 Prophet Zechariah, whose prophetical career began during the reign of Darius, king of Persia (BCE  520), is the first to mention this day as a fast day:

Thus said the Lord of Hosts: The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the tenth month shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; but you must love honesty and peace. (Zechariah 8:19)

Essentially, the Tenth of Tevet is one more fast day connected to the destruction of the First Temple, and as such, would not have been meaningful to me. But after the Holocaust, this day has acquired new significance.

I have always been troubled by the following question: Why don't we have a fast day commemorating the Holocaust? 

We're supposed to fast for a Gedaliah who lived thousands of years ago, and for the destruction of a stone-and-wood Temple that operated several millennia ago -- but we don't have a fast to commemorate the systematic murder of 6 million of our fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters that happened 70 years ago?! How can the Jewish calendar lack a fast day to remember how Nazi Germany and their collaborators dedicated themselves to the elimination of European Jewry on a scale unparalleled in modern history?!

It was precisely this dissonance that caused the Israeli Rabbinate to add new meaning to the Tenth of Tevet by turning it into a religious memorial day for the Holocaust victims. 

On the Tenth of Tevet of 1949, Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman – Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv who was later appointed Chief Rabbi of Israel - declared that

the day on which the first hurban (destruction) commenced should become a memorial day also for the last hurban

Rabbi Unterman - who lived in Britain during World War II and had worked to relieve the suffering of refugees in England - was acutely aware of the enormous tragedy of the Holocaust, and was instrumental in dedicating the Tenth of Tevet as a fast day for the Holocaust.

In 1951, the Israeli Rabbinate officially designated this fast day as a memorial day for Holocaust victims, and recommended that we say kaddish for the Shoah victims whose date of death or place of death is unknown. Thus, Asarah B’Tevet has become known as Yom HaKaddish HaKlali, the General Kaddish Day, and at the end of morning and evening services, we recite a kaddish in memory of the Holocaust martyrs.  

It would be safe to say that the minor fast days are ignored by the majority of Jewish people. But Asarah B'Tevet should be different. Take advantage of the federal holiday, come to shul on this day, listen to the El Male Rachamim, recite the kaddish, and preserve the memory of all who perished in the Holocaust, thereby continuing their legacy and showing that they have not been forgotten.

*               *               *

For times of services at Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim – click here.  

Monday, December 22, 2014

Solving the Hanukkah Spelling Dilemma

What's the correct spelling for the Jewish Festival of Lights?   

Chanuka, 
Chanukah, 
Chanukkah,  
Hanuka,
Hanukah, 
Hanukhah,  
Hanukkah, or 
Hannukah?   

All these spellings (and more) are found in dictionaries, newspapers, and websites, and the perennial Hanukkah question is: Which one to use?

This Hanukkah dilemma stems from the difficulty of transliterating the Hebrew word חֲנוּכָּה

The first letter of Hanukkah - the letter "ח" (chet) - creates a sound that doesn't exist in the English language. So that explains the "ch" or "h" variations. Then, we have the question of how to transliterate the letter  (kaf): Although the sound exists -  that of the letter "k" - the dot ("dagesh") inside the letter causes many to transliterate it as "kh" or "kk." 

After the establishment of the State of Israel, the Academy of the Hebrew Language published a set of transliteration rules. But the Israeli public frowned upon some of their decisions, especially the one where "ק" (kuf) was supposed to always transliterate to "q" (yes, I remember road signs such as "Qibbutz" (?!) and "Qiryat Gat" (?!)). So they revised the rules several times, and in 2011 published the latest transliteration guide (Hebrew pdf document).  

According to the Hebrew Language Academy, the transliteration of "ח" is "h," and the transliteration of כּ in חֲנוּכָּה would be "kk" (since grammatically speaking, the dagesh inside the letter  is a "dagesh chazak" - strong emphasis). Finally, because the ה  at the end of the word is not pronounced, the last syllable- כָּה - should be transliterated as "kka." Thus - Hanukka. 

However, because there is no one "right" transliteration guide, you could safely argue that any transliteration which gets you as close as possible to the source language is an acceptable transliteration.  This Time Magazine article  claims the most common spelling is "Hanukkah," but following a certain spelling simply because it won a popularity contest hardly seems a compelling solution. 

I have an original solution. On one hand, an inflation of spellings wreaks havoc and confusion. Often, you will find an annoying inconsistency by the same respectable website, such as in Haaretz where I found Hannukah here and Hanukkah here. On the other hand, we shouldn't be rigid, and in line with this blog's philosophy, we must allow for diverse approaches. Accordingly, here's my Chanukah Spelling Rule:     

Since this holiday lasts 8 days, and on the last night we light 8 candles - any transliteration of 'Chanukah' is kosher only if it has 8 letters!

Based on this easy-to-follow rule, Chanukah, Chanukka, Hanukkah, Hanukhah, and even the weird Hannukah are all legit.  We can forgive Haaretz for their inconsistency; they followed the rule in both cases:) 

When wishing the classic Chanukah greeting, though, I prefer to use the 'h' spelling to preserve the alliteration

Happy Hanukkah!

Addendum:  Here's an entertaining song about this dilemma by The Leevees:



Thursday, November 6, 2014

Is Shalshelet the Sound of Wavering? An Analysis In Honor of Veterans Day


It is the fanciest cantillation mark (trop in Yiddish) and, in Ashkenazi leyning, it sounds as if the Torah reader is climbing and descending Mount Kilimanjaro 3 times. Appearing always above the word, it has the shape of a squiggly vertical line. It's called the shalshelet:



This rare cantillation mark appears only 4 times in the entire Torah. What are the 4 words where this trop appears, and why on these 4 words?



First Appearance – Procrastination

The shalshelet makes her first appearance in this week’s sedra, Vayera, and in our case, it’s easy to see how the long drawn-out melody fits the meaning.

In the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot is commanded by the angels to flee the city, but he procrastinated. And Scripture tells us:

Still he delayed, so the men seized his hand and the hands of his wife and two daughters - in God's mercy on him, and brought him out. (Genesis 19:16)

On the Hebrew word for “still he delayed” we find the shalshelet:

וַֽיִּתְמַהְמָ֓הּ

The long up-and-down melody of the shalshelet fits the meaning of the word perfectly, capturing Lot's wavering and hesitation.

According to the Midrash, Lot was so attached to his possessions that he wanted to stay in Sodom. Because his priorities were skewed, the angels had to grab him and forcefully take him out of the city. The sound of the shalshelet brings to life Lot’s procrastination, giving dramatic flare to the rescue of a man who valued his wealth more than his life.


Second Appearance – Contemplation

The next occurrence is in the story of Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, who travels north to Aram Naharaim to find a wife for Yitzchak and bring her back to Canaan. On the way, Eliezer stops to contemplate what will be the criterion by which to choose a wife for his master’s son. At that point, the Torah describes Eliezer’s prayer to God:
And he said, "O L-rd, G-d of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham. Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water, let the maiden to whom I say 'Please, lower your jar that I may drink' and who replies 'Drink, and I will also water your camels' - let her be the one." (Genesis 24:12-14)

On the Hebrew word “said” appears the shalshelet:

וַיֹּאמַ֓ר

In this case, it seems the shalshelet reflects Eliezer’s prolonged deliberation. Consider that in order to find the right woman, Eliezer was weighing many factors. Selecting a woman (or man, for that matter) is a complex issue, where one needs to decide between competing considerations: Should he focus on whether or not she is attractive? How rich is her family? Her intelligence? Ethical behavior?

It wasn’t a simple task, and Eliezer went back and forth between different characteristics. After much thought, he finally decided: The most important factor is compassion for the stranger, and a woman who has the trait of gemilut chasadim is the most suitable wife for Yitzchak!

So the Masoretes, who placed the trop on the Biblical text, captured this deliberation by adding a shalshelet, and through it, we dramatically hear Eliezer’s internal deliberations, resulting in his final decision.


Third Appearance - Resisting Temptation

In her third occurrence, the shalshelet appears in the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. Having been sold by his brothers and brought down to Egypt, Joseph began working for his master Potiphar. Potiphar’s (nameless) wife attempts to seduce the handsome Joseph numerous times, but to no avail. We read:

After a time, his master's wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, 'Lie with me.' But he refused. He said to his master’s wife, “Look, with me here, my master gives no thought to anything in this house, and all that he owns he has placed in my hands (Genesis 39:8)

On the Hebrew word “refused” we find the shalshelet:

וַיְמָאֵ֓ן

The winding up-and-down notes reflect Joseph's ambivalence. Rather than immediately and unequivocally refusing her advances, he does indeed consider sleeping with her before refusing. The shalshelet humanizes Joseph: He was wavering between giving in to his urges and doing what was right in God's eyes.

Perhaps Joseph's wavering is what led her to believe that if she comes on more strongly to him, he will succumb to his desire. Eventually, she grabs hold of Joseph's garment and exclaims "lie with me!" Joseph manages to break free and run away, leaving his garment in her hands. She falsely accuses him of attacking her, causing Potiphar to throw him into the prison pit where he remains for two years.


Fourth Appearance - Reluctance to Relinquish Role

But if shalshelet is the sound of wavering, how can we explain its fourth and final occurrence?

The last time we find shalshelet is in Sefer Vayikra in the section detailing the consecration of the Tabernacle, and the anointment of Aaron and his sons as Kohanim. This celebration took place over seven days (“shivat yemei ha’miluim”) and marked the initiation of formal worship of Aharon and his sons as priests. As part of this milestone event, Moses is commanded to anoint his brother Aaron as the High Priest, and his nephews as priests.

To mark this monumental occasion, Moses brought 3 sacrifices, and performed the priestly duties. The third sacrifice was a ram, and after Aaron and his sons laid their hands on it, Moses performed the ritual of slaughtering:

And he [Moses] slaughtered, and Moses took some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear (Leviticus 8:23)

And here is the shalshelet:

וַיִּשְׁחָ֓ט

What is the shalshelet doing on the word vayishchat (“and he slaughtered”)??? It is completely counter-intuitive: Shouldn't the slaughtering of animals be as fast as possible to prevent the animal from suffering?!

Menashe Elyashiv from Bar Ilan University has a beautiful explanation of this shalshelet. This slaughtering is the last sacrificial operation that Moses will do; from now on, the entire worship in the Tabernacle will be carried out by the Kohanim. While Moses was a “priest for seven days," following this slaughtering of the ram the mantle will be transferred to Aaron and his sons, and Moses will no longer have any duties and responsibilities in the Tabernacle.

Moses is reluctant to let go. Before he carries out his last action as a priest, he contemplates. The shalshelet captures his reluctance to let go of the priestly worship which is motivated by his dedication to serving God. Thus, the shalshelet reflects the wavering before the act of slaughtering, realizing this transition will leave him without any role in the priestly worship. But eventually, he slaughters, fulfilling G-d’s command, and understanding that G-d has given different roles to him and his brother Aaron.

* * *

While in many situations in life it is meritorious to waver and contemplate, in others – it is not. Our veterans did not waver; they did not hesitate. As soldiers in the Armed Forces, they were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect our country at any moment.

Many of the veterans at Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim fought in World War II, helping defeat monstrous Nazi Germany and the brutal Japanese. There was no shalshelet in their mindset; no deliberation as they bravely fought the Axis Powers, knowing they may never come back to their families.

As we celebrate Veterans Day on Tuesday, November 11, we thank all our veterans, those who fought in wars and those who served in peacetime, for their unwavering dedication and steadfast determination to protect our freedoms and liberties.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Commentators Clash Over An Ambiguous Phrase

*"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.

Shabbat Shalom!

* This article was written together with Charles Shenitz from Silver Spring, Maryland.