My father is a physician, he was born and raised in the South and despite having lived in Southern California for more than fifty years, still considers himself a southerner. As a result, that piece of him has always played an important role in who I am and how I see myself.
This shabbat we learn that when our ancestors brought the first fruits of their harvest to the Temple as an offering, they began with a declaration: “Arami oved avi, my father was a wandering Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5). A seemingly simple and straightforward statement of genealogy, no? Perhaps not. You see the Hebrew word “oved” can mean “to be lost, to wander, to go astray,” but it can also mean “to destroy.” So, this seemingly simple declaration can be read as: “my father was a wandering Aramean,” or it can be read as: “an Aramean wanted to destroyed my father.” The two could not be more different. In one, we are pioneers whose ancestors wandered unknown lands, settled, and survived. In the other, victims, the object of an enemy’s aggression.
As you might imagine, this has sparked debate for centuries between commentators like Rashi and Ibn Ezra. Some translations favor one, some the other; and how we choose to translate and interpret these three words speaks volumes about how we see Jewish history, Jewish identity, and how we see ourselves.
Are we essentially pioneers who for millennia have survived and thrived, willing to evolve and adapt, planting roots and building lives in every corner of the earth? Or are we essentially victims, always running from the next Aramean, Nebuchadnezzar, Caesar, or Hitler, hellbent on destroying us?
Two completely acceptable ways to read this verse and two completely acceptable ways to see ourselves—pioneers or victims. Active or reactive. Which do we want to be?
We are in the midst of the month of Elul, during which we are engaging in reflection and introspection. Tomorrow night we will join together for Selichot, officially beginning the High Holy Day season—an opportunity to ask ourselves, what kind of Jews do we want to be in the coming year?