Arami Oved Avi: Balancing Gratitude and Appreciation
Moshe’s inspired monologue continues into our sedra and broaches an important aspect of living in Israel: gratitude. When the first fruit of the שבעת המינים are harvested, they are presented to G-d at the בית המקש in thankfulness. But this appreciation is for more than the abundant plenty of produce- the one who brings ביכורים recites a moving passage at the Temple, reminding all present of how amazing it is that he even had a field to plant crops in the first place, because, as he says:
וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי ה’ אֱלֹקֶיךָ, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב.
And he shall answer and respond before Hashem your G-d: Arami Oved Avi, and he descended to Egypt and lived there in poverty, but he became there a great and intense nation. (דברים כו:ה)
The reading continues with a rendition of the Egyptian Exodus, concluding:
וַיְבִאֵנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַיִּתֶּן-לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ.
And He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, one which flows with milk and honey. (שם ט)
The contrast between our nation’s low beginning, ארמי אבד אבי, and where the landowner is now, bringing his fruit in Jerusalem, is a humbling reminder of all of the good that Hashem has done to him and the Jewish People.
The first three words of this reading are perhaps the most confusing yet meaningful words of the entire section, describing our truly humble beginnings. Ibn Ezra explains that they refer to Yaakov’s poverty in his initial exile- our forefather was, literally, a wandering Aramean, without a penny to his name. Now, a few generations later, his descendants are so prosperous that not only do we have land, and produce- we even have enough surplus that we can give back to our G-d who gave us these riches. Rashi, taking a less literal approach, famously explains these words as: an Aramean (Laban) tried to destroy our forefather Yaakov. While its not very clear exactly how Laban tried to destroy Yaakov, their relationship was far from pleasant, and our forefather was definitely persecuted by his father-in-law. Jumping forward to the bringing of the ביכורים, many generations and “Laban”s later, it is quite remarkable that not only had we survived persecution, but we’ve entered our own land, and are prosperous there. With this perspective, the ביכורים ceremony is quite miraculous.
Whether remembering previous poverty or persecution, at the time of immense celebration, of presenting the first produce of the seven holy species, it is very important to remember our humble beginings. We could have been destroyed, we could have starved, we should have been subjected to eternal slavery in Egypt. Yet, with G-d’s help, we survived to tell the tale, and even inherited our own land and merited to prosper there. We must remember this, to avoid the consequences of the warnings of Sefer Devarim, that if we forget our miraculous roots, we will begin to think “כוחי ועוצם ידי עשה את החיל הזה“- no time is more susceptible to this than the presentation of a farmer’s hard work, which he toiled over for months. At the climax of his hard work, he must remember the One who ensured his survival and aided in every step of the farming. The public nature of this recitation also reaches out to those who are watching, reminding them of the source of the beautiful produce and the miracle of their existence.
This lesson is equally applicable in our times, even in the temporary absence of the בית המקדש. More than half of world Jewry lives in the Holy Land, and almost 10,000 Jews have moved this year alone to Eretz Yisrael. The Jewish State of Israel and all it has accomplished should be a source of pride for all of us, whether we live there yet or not, and we luckily have many opportunities to celebrate this pride (the spring season of “the Yom’s”). But, at the emotional highs of these celebrations, we, like the bringer of ביכורים, must remember “ארמי אבד אבי.” Less than a hundred years ago, our ancestors were facing poverty and persecution in Europe and Africa. We cannot forget the six million brothers (hy”d) who lost their lives because of their nationality, by the hands of the latest “ארמי.” These losses must permeate all of our celebrations, to remind us of the price of freedom and drive home how fortunate we are to have merited the end of the passage, “ויבאנו אל המקום הזה.”
On the other hand, it behooves us not to go too far to the other extreme. Two thousand years of persecution and poverty have caused religious Judaism to understandably be insular and defensive, never trusting a gentile nation or government for fear of repercussions. However, for the 6 million plus Jews currently living in Israel, this is no longer a problem. “ארמי אבד אבי” has finally given way for “ויבאנו אל המקום הזה,” and while we may still have enemies abroad, we no longer need to remain separate from our government, because… drumroll… we are the government. Nonetheless, sixty six and a half years have not been enough time for the more Haredi sects of Judaism to shed this suspicion and embrace their brothers in the Jewish Israeli government. One need look no further than last week’s news to see proof of this dangerous “Arami Oved Avi” complex. In preperation for the September 1st beginning of school in Ramat Bet Shemesh, a group of Haredi activists, led by their questionably elected mayor, occupied part of an underused secular school for their overcrowded Bais Yaakov seminary. While I will not get into whether these actions were justified or not (my longtime readers should not have very much doubt how I feel), one could ask why they didn’t first contact the proper authorities in the Education Ministry before taking these unilateral actions. However, based on the lesson above, it’s very clear that these activists are truly stuck in “Arami Oved Avi” complex- they are convinced that the Israeli government is persecuting them, so instead of trying to speak to their sympathetic brothers there, they took illegal action to ensure their way. They still think in the insular, separatist “shtetl” mentality, and are victimizing themselves in the process. These activists need to remember that there is reason to celebrate- we’ve merited a final “ויבאנו אל המקום הזה,” and the Israeli government, while notoriously inefficient, will never persecute us as our previous landlords have. “ארמי אבד אבי” is over for good! Until they recognize this, I’m afraid that the friction within our faith here will never truly end.
With Hashem’s help, we will merit an appropriate balance of “ארמי אבד אבי” and “ויבאנו אל המקום הזה,” to properly appreciate the good we’ve been given without getting too caught up in the past difficulties. Through this, we will hopefully merit a complete גאולה very soon.