Parashat Ki Tavo

Zionism And First Fruits

The speech that farmers recited when bringing their first fruits to the Temple forms a central part of the Passover retelling of the Exodus and articulates the Zionist message.

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Different commentators are divided as to whether this refers to Yaakov, who is here called an Aramean because his grandfather, Abraham, was originally from Aram, and/or because he spent many years in Aram hiding from his brother Esau and working for his father-in-law Lavan, or to Abraham and his ancestors, who originally came from Aram. The Hagadah, in fact, does not understand these words to mean any of the above options, but reads them, rather, as "the Aramean [identified as Lavan, Yaakov's tricky father-in-law] tried to destroy my father." Some time after Lavan's attempt to destroy him, Yaakov eventually made his way to Egypt, where the story continues with the Egyptian oppression of the Jews.

If this speech is meant to be a synopsis of Jewish history, taking us from the horrors of slavery in Egypt to the joys of freedom in Israel, why begin with such a cryptic reference to our forefathers? Why this lack of clarity as to how our national history begins? How is it that the tradition has not decided how, and in reference to whom, our story begins?

I think that the different interpretations of "Arami oved avi" must be taken together. "My father was a wandering Aramean" stresses the fact that we began as wanderers, not in our own land, not rooted in a country and community, and known by a name which was borrowed from others and whose meaning is now not clear to us. That situation of wandering, of homelessness, is not in opposition to, but, rather, should be closely identified with "The Aramean [Lavan] tried to destroy my father." The wandering, the lack of rootedness, the lack of context, leads to violence and hatred being aimed against us. We are, in such a situation, subject to the whims of those around us, we are victims.

I think it is also suggestive that in the two interpretations, both we and our oppressors have the same name--Aramean. In exile, our very identity is in fact a threat to us, our existential condition is inherently threatening. The confusion among the commentaries as to what this opening phrase means parallels the confusion of the reality the phrase describes; out of our land, out of our community, out of our historical narrative, it really is unclear who we were, where we were going, and what was happening to us. Our identities in Exile were limited to that which threatened us.

It is only once our situation as wanderers/victims is rectified, and we arrive and thrive in our own land, and see ourselves as actors in a coherent narrative, that we can begin to function as the individuals, and society, we were meant to be. Only once we are rooted in a knowledge of and gratitude for God's kindness, and understand ourselves in terms of that kindness, and are grateful for it, can we commit ourselves to echoing that kindness with the help we give to others.

For me, all the basics of classical Zionism are expressed in these few verses; the confusion, uncertainty, and dangers of Exile--the way it shrinks our identity to that of rootless victim. The moral, theological, and historical underpinnings of our presence in the Land of Israel, and the possibilities which that presence opens up for us. And, crucially, the commitment to social justice and communal concern which, as a result of our claiming our own place in this Land and within this narrative, devolves upon each and every one of us.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.