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Parashat Hashavua for Ki Tavo 2020

Parashat Hashavua for Ki Tavo

Reverend Sam Zwarenstein
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW

As we journey through this week’s Torah portion, we encounter a very well-known passage that is more familiar to us as a part of the Pesach Seder.

“You shall then recite as follows before Adonai your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to Adonai, the God of our fathers, and Adonai heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. Adonai freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents”(Deut 26:5-8).

This is the passage that was recited by Israelites when they brought the first fruits to the Temple. Rabbi Irwin Kula comments that this passage is an excellent example of the interplay of ritual and recital in the service of memory. The essentials of the Jewish story are all here in a formula so powerful that the rabbis of the second century used this passage to introduce the discussion of the Exodus in the Passover Haggadah.

He also notes that in the Haggadah the rabbis omitted the next verse that describes God bringing the people into the land (God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey - Deut 26:10). Our sages, coping with the loss of the Templeand sovereignty over the land, may not have wanted to place too much focus on the land. Even though they were dealing with this loss, they understood the importance of incorporating this passage into the Haggadah.

What is the significance and importance of including this specific passage in the Haggadah? Firstly, there is some conjecture about who is being referred to as the wandering Aramean. Both Rashi and Ibn Ezra state that “my father” refers to Jacob, whose father-in-law, Laban (an Aramean) made him wander. Others say that the wandering Aramean was Abraham. He was originally from Aram, and he did plenty of wandering, starting when God told him; “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house ...”(Genesis 12:1).

This could be extrapolated to refer to both ancestors, especially as Abraham was Jacob’s grandfather, and the result still leads to our ancestors going down to Egypt and sojourning there.

Furthermore, God also promised both Abraham and Jacob to bring/return them to the promised land.

At different times in our tradition, our ancestors enjoyed many generations of prosperity in Egypt, especially following Joseph’s time there. However, in the end they were subjected to oppression, slavery and hard labour, under the rule of a new pharaoh.

This led to the Exodus, our redemption from slavery to freedom in order to serve God, that led to the formation of our national identity, and is the story we recount each year at the Pesach seder.

In a very simplified synopsis, if our ancestors had not gone to Egypt, we would not be telling the story of our redemption and national identity.

Our memory and history go hand in hand. Connecting the two is what keeps our story alive, through our festivals and celebrations, through honouring our ancestors and community, and through ensuring that future generations continue to connect these two elements of our tradition.

Our sages knew that they had to find a way to incorporate this crucial passage in our tradition, because they realised the importance of memory and history, and that the story needed to be told, generation after generation.

It is therefore our duty not only to ensure that we recall this passage each and every Pesach during the Seder, but to also appreciate the value of the passage both in terms of its role in the Haggadah as well as its part in the promise that God made to our ancestors.

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