Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-11)
By: Rabbi Barbara Borts
In Ki Tavo, we join the Israelites on a journey towards a special location, to be chosen by God, in the land in which they were going to settle. They would bring a vat filled with the first fruits to the Cohen on that spot, to be laid before the altar of God, and recite a declaration, seen in verse 5 of our sidra, in words that might be familiar to you, “arami oved avi…a wandering Aramean was my father.” We also recite those words at the beginning of the maggid, the lengthy section of the haggadah, when we sort of tell the story of pesach.
This is a characteristic Jewish journey, which takes one back, before it takes one forward – we move from the times of the patriarchs and matriarchs, through to Egypt, the enslavement and oppression, to the liberation – and then, in verse 10, v’ata, and now, here we are, bringing the first fruits to God, worshipping God in the present, and establishing a ritual that will continue on into the future.
It is often stated that one cannot know who and what one is if one doesn’t know one’s past. Judaism imposes on us a heavy burden of remembering– whether Reform or Orthodox Jew, secular or cultural Jew, one has a history, or rather, histories, which are linked to and inform our present and our future. This past is not intended to imprison us, but rather, to move us along, to the v’ata, the now.
Once the remembering is done, the commitment to Jewish life that came because of an accident of birth or a conscious choice needs to be renewed, by finding God in the here and now.
An argument about how to translate arami oved ami, highlights 2 different ways to identify as a Jew and 2 different ways to approach God, both supported by the story of the days of the Egyptian sojourn and the Exodus. Some say arami… means “a wandering Aramean is my father” and some say it means “an Aramean sought to destroy my father.” The differences in translation stem from the ambiguity of the form of the verb.
A Jew who emphasizes the 2nd meaning, [an Aramean sought to destroy my father] is a Jew of duress. This kind of Jews allows otherness to define their Jewishness – ‘I am a Jew, they are Arameans.’ The other is generally a hostile other, a disconfirming other, the one who seeks to persecute or destroy the Jews. This interpretation can be supported by the verses which reminisce about the hard labour which the Egyptians compelled of the Israelites. Choosing this interpretation, one might see being Jewish as an identity reinforced by the antagonistic external world and the boundaries others set, which both hedge us in and keep others out.
The one who chooses ‘a wandering Aramean was my father’ seeks Jewish identity through historical-mythical connection. That wanderer is my ancestor and we are linked; we were slaves until the Exodus. This mode of imagining the past claims ancestry from homeless wanderers, persecuted people. This Jew is a Jew because they were created as such, whether from birth or from later choice. This Jew focuses less on the persecutions and more on the liberation, and regards themselves as part of a greater whole, which both influences, and is influenced by, them.
The Jew of the persecuted parent draws their line upon reaching verses 9 and 10, the ‘and now’, v’ata. History is enough, persecution is their raison d’etre. ‘I am a Jew because Hitler would have counted me as such; I am a Jew because not to be is to hand Hitler a posthumous victory’ such Jews might state. Such an identity begins and ends with the one who assumes it. It need not, perhaps even cannot, be handed down; it is sufficient unto itself, but it does not transcend its own limitations. It is not a positive identity, enjoyed in the present and oriented towards the future. Such a Jew may draw permission from this identification for Jews themselves to become persecutors.
The Jew of the wandering Aramaic father is a Jew for intrinsic reasons, mourning the persecutions, forgetting nothing, claiming it all – but moving beyond, through to liberation and the Liberator. This Jew embraces the ‘v’ata hinei’, and now, here I am. For such a Jew, there are compelling reasons to be Jewish, through prayers, through rituals, through historical studies, through Jewish music. This Jew can also identify with the sufferings of others through empathy – the other is a confirming other, a person on a journey, poor, unsettled, envied, despised and oppressed. This Jew believes that the message of the Jewish God is that this God liberates, and such a Jew could not be on the side of the powerful against the powerless. And this Jew would want Judaism to extend beyond their lifetime and survive in future generations.
The first Jew opts simply for survival. The 2nd Jew opts for meaning in survival.
Many of us harbour within ourselves both types of Jew, sometimes one, sometimes the other. Perhaps as we enter Elul and begin to prepare for the 10 Days of Repentance, we can take the time to examine our interpretations of the Jewish past, and connection to the Jewish present and future, how we use and misuse our history – and what that says about the kind of Jew, and the kind of person, we will be in the coming year.
About the Author:
Rabbi Barbara Borts is the rabbi of Darlington Hebrew Congregation in England, and an Honorary Fellow of the Department of Anthropology, Durham University
We are sharing the sermon through the courtesy of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. We are immensely grateful to the WUPJ.