Ki Tavo and the Wandering Aramean, with thanks to Rabbi Annie Tucker and Rabbi Mark Greenspan

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
Sept. 1, 2018

Ki Tavo is a fruitful Torah portion. There is so much to speak about from curses and hemorrhoids to blessings and reward. The very first aliyah is one of the most talked about selections of Torah.

Deuteronomy 26:1 -4 When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish God's name. You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, "I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign to us." The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God.
Deuteronomy 26
ה וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב.
ו וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים, וַיְעַנּוּנוּ; וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ, עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה.
ז וַנִּצְעַק, אֶל-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ; וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָה אֶת-קֹלֵנוּ, וַיַּרְא אֶת-עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת-עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת-לַחֲצֵנוּ.
ח וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ יְהוָה, מִמִּצְרַיִם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל--וּבְאֹתוֹת, וּבְמֹפְתִים 
5 And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God: 'A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.
6 And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage.
7 And we cried unto the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression.
8 And the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders. (

I offer great thanks to Rabbi Mark Greenspan of the Oceanside Jewish Center and Rabbi Annie Tucker of Beth Hillel Bnai Emunah of Chicago for collecting these rabbinic comments on the passage.

Mishnah Bikkurim 7:3 In the beginning anyone who knew how to read would read and anyone who did not know how to read, it would be read for him. The refrained from bringing, the rabbis decreed that it would be read both for those who knew how to read and for those who did not 

JPS Commentary on Deuteronomy (Jeff Tigay) Offerings of the first products of the soil are a way of acknowledging God as the source of the land's fertility and the true owner of its produce. In the present ceremony, however, the theme of fertility plays only a secondary role as the farmer is led from his immediate situation to a recognition of the land's fertility as merely one aspect of a larger picture, namely God's guidance of Israel's history from its humble beginnings, freeing it from oppression and giving it land. One may compare the way the biblical description of the preharvest rites of the pesach sacrifice and the Festival of Unleavened Bread focus exclusively on the Exodus, not on the upcoming harvest. This shift of the focus of a religious ceremony from exclusive attention t the role of God in nature to an emphasis on His role in history is one of the most important and original features of the Bible. Its effect on liturgy is this type of prescribed prayer, which leads the worshiper from the immediate experience to an understanding of the larger picture.

Rashi on Deuteronomy 26:5 Arami oved Avi. (An Aramean sought to destroy my father). Laban sought to uproot all when he pursued after Jacob. And because he contemplated doing so, God charges him as though he had done it for as regards the nations of the world the Holy One Blessed Be God considers a thought equivalent to a deed.

Rashbam on Deuteronomy 26:5 Arami oved Avi. (My father was a wandering Aramean). My father Abraham was an Aramean, wandering and exiled in the land of Aram. As it is written, "Go forth from your land" (Genesis 12:1) and as it's written, "So when God made me wander from my father's house" (Genesis 20:13).

Nechama Leibowitz on Parashat Ki Tavo The farmer who brings his fruit thanks God for having delivered him from Egyptian bondage and brought him to Eretz Yisrael. Why should he hark back to the wickedness of Laban? For this reason, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra's understanding of the text in the sense of "a wandering Aramean" is more plausible – first the reference to the exile and wandering, and then the bondage and redemption. The story thus begins with wandering and ends with its converse – permanent settlement.

The Family Participation Haggadah by Noam Zion and David Dishon, p. 81 Why does the Pesach Haggadah's central midrash focus on the story of the first fruits, which is associated with Shavuot? Perhaps the point is that Pesach is not only about the move from slavery to freedom, but from economic dependence to productivity, from the vulnerability of the alien to the security of the citizen.

A Night of Questions Passover Haggadah by Michael Strassfeld and Joy Levitt, p. 52 When the Israelites brought the fruits of their first harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem, they proclaimed the formula that began with the words, "My father was a wandering Aramean." It is recited not from the perspective of slaves, but of successful farmers in the Promised Land. Why was it important to recite this formula? "When you have eaten your fill and built find houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Adonai your God, who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of slavery…and you say to yourselves, 'My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me' (Deuteronomy 8:12-14, 17)." As we celebrate our freedom and our bounty, we are reminded never to forget the many sources of our privilege, and the covenantal obligations that these privileges impose upon us.
(Above sources from

What do all these comments have in common?

They help us discover our journeys. While it may feel that we get stuck at times--sometimes for good and sometimes less so, this time of year is a reminder that we are ALL, always on a journey.

We are on a journey of love. We are on a journey of hope. We are on a journey of striving, of hoping, of reaching, of trying. We are not there yet, but we are trying to get there--wherever there is!

We are all in different places, yet we come together here. The next section of our Torah reading this morning is about blessings and curses--but they are not just spoken in the Torah--they are almost acted out. The curses are shouted from one moment and the blessings from another. The Israelites literally walk through. They are forced to see physically the way their choices matter. If they go this way, bad things will happen and if they go the other, good things will. It’s multi-spatial, multi-dimensional, multi-intelligence learning.

How much of our lives are like that? How often are our choices projected in front of us to truly consider our actions?

This time of year is a wake up moment--the shofar is our wake up call. It asks us what direction we are going.

For me, this year is about creating stability amidst chaos. It is about helping connect our community to one another. It’s about building bridges. It’s about love. It’s about opening our home and our hearts to y’all.

As we strive to create new access points, as we strive to build new ways to connect, as we look to work together for a fruitful journey, I am grateful for every one of you. Let’s keep working!

Shabbat shalom!