The Proclamation of Redemption

Parshat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)

At one point every spring, after the sun has set, we sit down together with our family and guests in order to commemorate our redemption with the Passover seder. We recall the exodus from Egypt and remember God’s great hand of deliverance. We do this by using a book called the Haggadah. It guides us through our Passover experience, telling us what to say and what to do. One of the passages we recite from the Haggadah is found in our current Torah portion:

And you shall make response before the LORD your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. (Deuteronomy 26:5–8)

According to the Rambam, this proclamation is central to the seder, since everything we read in the Haggadah is focused on what this verse summarizes: the detailed suffering of the Children of Israel and their miraculous deliverance through the hand of God. However, if you’ve ever participated in a Passover seder and read this passage from the Hagaddah, you probably noticed the translation is quite different.

At the beginning of this passage, most Bible translations say something to the effect of, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” The Haggadah, on the other hand, translates this passage to say, “An Aramean tried to destroy my father.” Over the centuries various rabbis have debated over the proper interpretation of this passage. Should we read it as, “An Aramean tried to destroy my father,” or as, “My father was a wandering Aramean”? For instance, Onkelos (in his definitive Aramaic translation of the Torah) argued that it should be translated as the former, whereas Ibn Ezra and others argued the opposite.

Which way is correct? If you’ve spent any time studying the Scriptures from a Jewish perspective, you will realize that the answer is, “both.” Without going into technical details, this is because the Hebrew in this passage—along with many others like it—can be read either way. Each of these readings reflects a truth about Jacob.

First, he had no possessions of his own when he fled from his brother, Esau, to his uncle, Laban, in Aram. He sojourned in Aram, thus becoming the “wandering Aramean” this verse speaks of. However, we also hear Laban the Aramean telling him, “It is in my power to do you harm” (Genesis 31:29). Another thing Laban told him was, “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine” (Genesis 31:43). From these two verses, we see that an Aramean (his uncle Laban) not only intended to do Jacob harm, but he also wanted to destroy any future he may have had by claiming everything of Jacob’s as his own. But despite his humble beginnings and Laban’s efforts to destroy him, Jacob’s wealth increased and his family multiplied. God blessed him and made him into a great nation.

Commenting on this passage, Rabeinu Bachya points out an important lesson we can learn from this text and its various interpretations. He says we are supposed to recite this passage at a time when we are living free from poverty and slavery. We should look to the past and see how events have worked together to bring us to this point in our lives, and acknowledge that our success and well-being are completely dependent upon the One who controls those events. We remember that we are forever indebted to His kindness.

Where has God brought you from? How has He delivered you and how has He blessed you? Sometimes we try to suppress painful memories of our past out of self-preservation. But God wants to turn those pains of the past into milestones to mark the starting points of our present and our future. From there He wants us to remember that it is He who brought us out of those dark days. It is He who has blessed us and given us hope. By sharing our story with others we won’t easily forget what God has done in our lives. It is our proclamation of our redemption. What is your story and who will you tell?