This week’s topic is the Little Credo, vv. 5–10 of Deuteronomy 26, the credo recited ki tavo, “when you enter” the land that your God YHWH is giving you. What happens then?
You bring the first fruits of the soil to the Temple in a basket, you hand them to a priest, and you then recite the following verses, given here in the JPS translation:
5 My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. 6 The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. 7 We cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. 8 The LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O LORD, have given me.
One thing most likely struck you right away. This Little Credo and a phrase-by-phrase midrashic interpretation of it provide the main part of the Passover Haggadah. If “the finger of God” (Exod 8:15) struck the Egyptians with 10 plagues, then the “hand” of God (from our passage) must have inflicted 50 plagues. Sound familiar?
Something else that you may or may not have noticed, quite interesting but not my topic this week, is what is missing from this credo. “My father,” the patriarch Jacob, took his family down to Egypt; where they became a nation; they were enslaved and then freed, after which God brought them to this bountiful land. There’s nothing whatsoever here about Mount Sinai or about the Israelites being given the Torah. That’s not any part of what you are thanking God for in this “credo,” this statement of belief. A very interesting omission!
Today’s topic, though, is a puzzling phrase that is here, in fact, it is the first statement of the Little Credo. “My father” is … what, exactly? “My father was a fugitive Aramean” (in Deut 26:5) is the NJPS translation of the Hebrew phrase אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י arami oved avi. “My father” (avi) and “Aramean” (arami) are clear and obvious. The word we’re focusing on this week is oved — not עובד with an ayin, “a worker,” but אֹבֵ֣ד with an aleph.
This root has a much broader meaning. It can mean that you are lost; it can mean that you have gone astray. You’ll sometimes find arami oved translated as “a wandering Aramean.” If you look in the Haggadah, you may find it translated in a most surprising way — as if it read “an Aramean tried to kill my father.”
Nowhere else in the Bible does this word mean “to kill,” let alone “try to kill.” We can get some help in understanding it from a comment of R. David Kimhi. Kimhi’s “comments” to Torah texts other than Genesis are not from a commentary but from his lexical works. In this one, he is explaining how our root אבד works in Num 17:27, where the Israelites tell Moses:
אָבַ֖דְנוּ כֻּלָּ֥נוּ אָבָֽדְנוּ׃ avadnu kullanu avadnu
In the JPS translation:
We are lost, all of us lost!
And here is how Kimhi explains avadnu in that verse:
This is simply an expression meaning, “We are in deep trouble”; compare Deut. 26:5.
That is to say, arami oved avi of Deut 26:5 means, “My father was an Aramean in trouble.”
So that’s what the beginning of the credo says, according to Kimhi: not that Jacob was a fugitive Aramean, not that he was wandering or lost, not that he was the victim of attempted murder, but that he was in a pickle.
What kind of pickle was he in? Kimhi points specifically to Jacob’s complaint against Laban in Gen 31:38–42 (here again in the NJPS translation):
38 These twenty years I have spent in your service, your ewes and she-goats never miscarried, nor did I feast on rams from your flock. 39 That which was torn by beasts I never brought to you; I myself made good the loss; you exacted it of me, whether snatched by day or snatched by night. 40 Often, scorching heat ravaged me by day and frost by night; and sleep fled from my eyes. 41 Of the twenty years that I spent in your household, I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flocks; and you changed my wages time and again. 42 Had not the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, been with me, you would have sent me away empty-handed.
I think we can all agree that 20 years of that kind of treatment could indeed be called “big trouble.”
If Radak is right, then Deuteronomy 26 is telling us that those 20 years of abuse that Jacob suffered at the hands of his Uncle Laban in Mesopotamia are the beginning of the story of the Jews as a people. Jacob was in big trouble, and somehow, after many years, God manipulated the situation to send him down to Egypt. There, of course, we were enslaved, landing us in trouble 100 times worse than Jacob had ever been.
According to the Torah, however, there was a plan behind that enslavement. If you find yourself in big trouble, perhaps you should hope that you too will be saved from that trouble. If your trouble seems a little bit less big than it might have by comparison with the troubles of Jacob or of the Israelites who were enslaved, that’s definitely something to be thankful for.
Whether you’re in such big trouble that you feel that you’re about to perish or whether you are just a little bit lost, you could express all of those situations with this Hebrew word אובד oved, first experienced by Jacob, later by the Israelites in Numbers 17, and by all of Jacob’s descendants ever since. But two weeks from now is Rosh Hashanah, and we will all get a fresh start for the new year.