D’var Torah I delivered this past Shabbat at Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, NY.
Perhaps you’ve seen a recent humour piece in the New Yorker, entitled, “No, I’m from New York.” If you have ever lived in New York City, or really have even just spent time there, I think that you will appreciate its sardonic depiction of life in the so-called greatest city in the world, through the eyes of an ex-New Yorker who has moved to Los Angeles:
“A two-bedroom house with a front yard and a back yard? Psh. What do you need all that space for? Yoga? I’m from New York. I once paid… five thousand dollars a month to live in the garbage chute of a postwar luxury condominium on First Avenue. It’s important to live in terrible places when you’re young. A postwar! On First Avenue! That’s how you build character. All of this ‘actual house’ business makes you soft… Move back to New York? Come on. I’m from New York. I’m not going back there.”
Like this New Yorker-cum-Los Angelean, I come from another place – born in Toronto, lived in Montreal, before landing in New York, with a pit-stop in Jerusalem along the way.
I have lived in New York City for 8 years, and have come to call that great city home. At the same time, I maintain my Canadian identity with pride. It is an inextricable part of me. And so I am of two worlds – every day, I feel the magnetic tug towards my own true north – a reminder of my identity as one who left home.
To be sure, it is often when we go somewhere away from the place we call home, that we gain a stronger appreciation for the very things that make “home” — “home.”
Sometimes the differences between my two homes are subtle. We Canadians and Americans share a language and many cultural influences. Sometimes the differences are more noticeable, as they are for the garbage-chute-dwelling New Yorker who moved to Los Angeles and discovered the wonder that is a front yard.
I am not the only one to have had such an experience. We are, after all, blessed to live in an age of great mobility. But the experience is mine, and part and parcel of how I see myself. I share it with you this evening not only as an introduction, but because I believe that it is an experience that we all are meant to share.
Our parasha this week contains one of the most prominent phrases in the Torah: “My father was a wandering Aramean.” Arami Oved Avi. These three words, famous for their recitation during the Pesach seder, speak to the essence of how the Torah understands our identity: Our ancestors were wanderers. Like me, they came from somewhere else.
- What does it mean to come from somewhere else?
- And what does it mean that we not only have that experience in our own lives, but that it is inherited, part of the very make up of our DNA?
- How does our understanding of our selves influence what it means to exist alongside others?
These are questions that are baked into the core of what it means to be Jewish, thanks to these three little words.
Arami Oved Avi. The words themselves are puzzling. Who is the avi – the father? He is not named. Who is the Arami – the Aramean? This character also remains mysteriously anonymous. And what does Oved mean? There are multiple options. We often translate the phrase as “My father was a wandering Aramean.” But this is not the only way to read the text.
Rashi’s classic assumption is that the Aramean and our father are two different characters, and that the phrase is best understood as meaning “An Aramean would have destroyed my father.” In this version, the father is our ancestor Jacob, who was oppressed by his uncle, Laban, while working to marry his beloved Rachel. Jacob would later be forced to leave his home in the land of Israel, and make his way to Egypt, a refugee of a great famine.
Others follow Rashbam’s teaching that the Aramean and our father are the same person – our ancestor Abraham. And it was he who sojourned, from somewhere in the ancient and distant land of Aram, to the promised land of Canaan. This gives us the popular translation, “My father was a wandering Aramean.”
My favourite reading of the text translates it as “My father was a renegade Aramean,” implying the significant changes that our ancestors sought to provoke – rebelling against their polytheistic paths, fleeing from persecution, and seeking to bring about a new order.
What each of these interpretations share is an understanding of our ancestors as having had the archetypal migrant experience – pushed or pulled from their native home; crossing great distances to arrive at a strange, foreign land.
Our parasha originally prescribed reciting Arami Oved Avi as part of the prayer that the Israelites offered after they entered into the land of Israel and harvested the first fruits of the land. I imagine our ancestors, dressed in their whitest clothes, having spiritually purified themselves, offering the choicest fruits nurtured in the soil of their new home to God in thanksgiving.
Later, Arami Oved Avi would be repurposed as the core text of the Passover haggadah, “guaranteeing that it would not languish along with other agricultural relics of early Israelite history,” as Rabbi Martin Lockshin puts it. Every year when we sit around our tables with family and friends, we recall the centrality of freedom in our tradition by reciting, Arami Oved Avi – our ancestors were renegades.
I think these three words are more than a historical memory. We recite them in the very presence of God, at the Pesach seder, and during a Torah reading just before Rosh Hashanah, when we are meant to look deep within ourselves and consider who we have been, and who we want to become.
Ibn Ezra drives the point home: When the worshipper declared, Avi – my father, they meant to say my parent, not someone else’s, but mine – mine was lost, and my relatives suffered, were liberated, and struggled to rebuild their lives.
Arami Oved Avi is not a statement of history. It is a statement of identity. It is one of the ways that we tell other people who we are.
But it is not a backward-looking identity rooted in a depressing history of perpetual persecution and oppression. Arami Oved Avi prompts us to look forward, and to question:
- What does it mean to come from somewhere else?
- How does our understanding of ourselves as migrants influence what it means to exist alongside others?
Who are we? Are we wandering sojourners? Renegades? Yet another good option is “refugee.” What if we said: “My father was a… refugee.”
Our reading of this parasha falls at a particularly auspicious time, as world leaders gather in New York to address the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War. These leaders are faced with a question that has stymied countless others: what responsibility is owed to those in need of protection? On Monday, the UN held its first ever conference on refugees and migration. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama hosted a summit seeking commitments from countries to protect asylum seekers.
Journalist Joanna Slater describes the immensity of the task:
“The number of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide hit 25 million last year, according to the UN refugee agency. A further 41 million people were forcibly displaced within the borders of their own countries. Together it means that 1 out of every 113 people on earth have left their homes due to conflict.”
66 million refugees. 66 million sojourners. 66 million wandering Arameans.
Nicholas Kristoff, writing in this week’s New York Times, passionately argues that “As today’s leaders gather for their summit sessions, they should remember that history eventually sides with those who help refugees, not with those who vilify them.” In drawing the parallel to the 1938 Evian Conference on the Jewish refugee crisis caused by the Nazis, Kristoff prompts his readers with a haunting question: “Would you hide a Jew from the Nazis?
To us, he might ask: “Would you protect a refugee?”
Arami Oved Avi. “My father was a refugee…” Why does this passage appear here, in this place in the Torah? What is it about this moment in the Torah’s narrative that demands our awareness of our refugee past? It is found amidst a series of laws and rituals that includes the charge to uphold the rights of the weakest amongst our society – the widow, the orphan, and the refugee.
Arami Oved Avi was said precisely at the moment when our ancestors brought their offerings to God. Why, now, at this joyous time of renewal in the land of Israel, is this ritual introduced? Why the need to dwell on a tormented past?
Perhaps it is “essential to recall previous experiences of suffering and distress in times of ease,” as Rambam argues. Recalling our story in this way reminds us that the human experience is a mixed one, of successes and failures; of joys and disappointments. The triumph of freedom takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. In declaring their refugee past at the very moment that they celebrated their return home, our ancestors powerfully evoked their understanding that nothing is to be taken for granted.
Having once been homeless, the Israelites are now home. Once refugees, they are now stewards of a new land, with the responsibility to internalize this past into a forward-looking vision of what it means to protect the rights of others. Kristoff’s lingering charge echoes in my ear: “Would you protect a refugee?”
Would you? Would I? I have to believe that I would say yes. I don’t think that I am allowed to say no.
I am no refugee. I am blessed with secure homes in two countries. But the Torah demands that we not turn our back on our ancient – and more recent – past as refugees. Our people knows what it feels like to come from another place; to feel lost; to struggle to build a new home. The Torah beckons us to not let that collective memory become a relic, but remain an ever-burning part of how we define ourselves.
When we say Arami Oved Avi – My father was a wandering, oppressed, renegade, refugee… We cannot let our father – our parents – just be two-dimensional characters from an ancient fairy tale. They call out to us today across space and time! So when refugees cry out, we are not allowed to say no. In that way, we might protect those who find themselves caught up in the very same story we have been telling ourselves for 2,000 years.