So here we are sitting around the table at our Passover Seder, the “ordered” event created and designed for transmitting the story and the values of our Jewish people to the next generation. We’ve enjoyed a first cup of wine and, a bit of an hors d’oeuvres (even if it’s just a piece of parsley or other crudités), while adults have shepped some naches as our youngest children show off their Hebrew School skills by reciting the Four Questions. So now we get to the heart of the matter – the Telling. This is the section of our ritual called the Maggid, the Narrative. It’s why we’re here.
Interestingly, the story unfolds along two parallel tracks as we describe our ascent from degradation to triumph. On the one hand, it is the story of moving from slavery to empowerment. And at the same time, we describe our transformation from idolators to the ones who discovered and who have taught the world the truth of Ethical Monotheism. And, so we remember:
Arami oved avi – “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean.” Well, if that’s what the Hebrew line actually means. For even from the time of our Sages, no one was really certain. And isn’t that a rather strange way to begin our most important story?
Two of the three words are pretty easy to understand. The word Arami means a person from the region of Aram, in modern-day Syria. And Avi means “my father.” But the meaning of that middle word, Oveid isn’t so clear. Oveid can mean “to be lost” but it can also mean to “destroy.” So, this became a common translation and understanding of where our story begins, as we find in traditional Haggadot: “An Aramean sought to destroy my father!” That Aramean is taken to be Laban, the one who cheated our ancestor, Jacob, out of his betrothal to Rachel. Over the centuries, Rabbinic tradition embellished Laban’s character flaws and came to see him as the epitome of treachery and wickedness.
However, we can also understand our story’s opening line, Arami oved avi as meaning “My ancestors, wandering Arameans, went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there became a populous nation.” In this understanding, as Jews we derive from an ancestry rich in a pioneering spirit of vision and bravery!
Not long ago, historian Thomas Cahill published a fascinating little volume which he titled: “The Gifts of the Jews. How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels.” In his brief study of early stirrings of Jewish belief, law, ethics and practice, Cahill expresses what we so often take for granted; namely, the totally unique – the revolutionary ideas – which Judaism introduced into the world.
Responding to God’s call to Abraham: Lech l’cha – Go forth, Cahill notes the words Vayelech Avram – Avram went:
“Two of the boldest words,” he writes, “in all literature. They signal a complete departure from everything that has gone before in the long evolution of culture and sensibility. Out of Sumer, civilized repository of the predictable, comes a man who does not know where he is going, but goes forth into the unknown wilderness under the prompting of his god. Out of Mesopotamia, home of canny, self-serving merchants who use their gods to ensure prosperity and favor, comes a wealthy caravan with no material goal. Out of ancient humanity, which from the dim beginnings of its consciousness has read its eternal verities in the stars, comes a party traveling by no known compass. Out of the human race, which knows in its bones that all its striving must end in death, comes a leader who says he has been given an impossible promise. Out of mortal imagination comes a dream of something new, something better, something yet to happen, something – in the future.”
So here we are at our Seder tables, ready to tell the story of our ascent from degradation to glory, but the entire trajectory of that narrative leans on our understanding of those first three Hebrew words: Arami oveid avi. One translation makes us into victims of enemies out to destroy us, while the other affirms the Jewish role as pioneers, rejecting the world’s long-held assumptions.
Arami oveid avi. My ancestors were victims. From Lavan, the Aramean, into our own days we have never been safe.
Arami oveid avi. My ancestors were pioneers, who left all that they had known having heard God’s call to begin a vision of humankind afresh in their own Promised Land.
Which story will we choose to tell and to teach our children this year and in years to come? Θ
Rabbi David J. Meyer is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead.