By Rabbi Scott A. Hoffman
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8.
If you grew up like I did with the red and yellow Haggadah, you probably still recall all the prayers you needed to read to reach page 28, the festive meal. There were the Four Questions on page 8, the plagues on page 16 and the three symbols of Rabban Gamaliel on pages 25-27.
But nestled in between is a passage from this week’s portion, Ki Tavo. Specifically, the Haggadah quotes Ki Tavo’s version of the declaration that Israelites made before the priests when presenting their first-fruits in the Tabernacle. But the Haggadah reads the passage in a startling way, which leads to an equally startling conclusion, and it’s worth asking why this is so.
The passage opens with the words “Arami oved avi,” “a wandering Aramean” – Jacob or perhaps Abraham – “was my father.” Pilgrims bringing their first-fruits were recounting the history of the Jewish people from the time of the patriarchs to their own day. But the Haggadah suggests a very different reading, namely that the phrase “Arami oved avi” means “a wandering Aramean sought to kill my father.” This is taken as a reference to Laban, whose deceptions of Jacob led to the creation of an unhealthy adversarial relationship, which only through divine intervention ended without bloodshed.
This (mis)identification leads, in the Haggadah at least, to the branding of Laban as being worse than Pharaoh himself. Why? Because the latter, in the
Haggadah’s view, only sought to kill male children, while the former wanted to “uproot the whole,” i.e., to kill everyone. In other words, the real villain of the story of Passover, if the “Arami oved avi” declaration is to be believed, is not Pharaoh but Laban. But this seems a forced reading of the passage at best.
One creative explanation put forward was by Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer, one of the giants of 19th-century German Orthodoxy. His explanation relies on counter-history, which asks us to postulate how history’s outcome would have differed had an alternative course of action been pursued. Counter-history is tricky because the contrary is fact, but let’s see in any case how Hildesheimer’s lesson works.
Hildesheimer asks: What would have happened if Laban had not tricked Jacob by substituting Leah for Rachel? In that case, Hildesheimer argues, Joseph would have been the oldest son, and his father Jacob’s favoritism would not have been a major source of strife. Joseph’s brothers would then not have sold him into slavery, and he would never have gone to Egypt, and never would have stood before Pharaoh, and the whole sequence of events leading to slavery wouldn’t have occurred. Laban wasn’t “worse” than Pharaoh in the usual sense of the word. He was “worse” in the sense that, had he acted more honestly, Pharaoh’s cruelty would never have touched the Israelites at all.
Pharaoh’s oppression was the result of Laban’s trickery and deception.
This works well, from a literary point of view, if you now re-read the opening line of the declaration in Key Tavo. It would then read that “Laban sought to kill my father, and as a result my father went down to Egypt.”
What Hildesheimer is saying is that small acts of deception lead to acts of great cruelty. Laban’s behavior is dangerous because it enables Pharaoh’s. Even our banal sins can metastasize into unspeakable acts of cruelty. That’s a sobering thought for us all to ponder, even if it means waiting a few more minutes to reach page 28.
Rabbi Scott A. Hoffman is the spiritual leader of B’nai Shalom of Olney.