This week’s parsha is Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8.
The phrase “Arami Oved Avi” that appears at the beginning of our Torah portion sounds familiar. This sentence is the opening statement of the farmers who came to the Temple in Jerusalem and handed the bikkurim, the basket of first fruits, to the priest.
But it achieved notoriety mainly because we recite it every year in our Passover Haggadah. There, we interpret the phrase as follows:
“Go and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to Jacob our father. For whereas Pharaoh only decreed the death of the males, Laban sought to exterminate them all, as it is written ‘Arami Oved Avi’ — an Aramean tried to destroy my father.”
This interpretation — Laban the Aramean tried to destroy our father Jacob — was also popularized by Rashi, who quoted this Midrash.
According to this interpretation, arami is a reference to Laban, oved is a transitive verb meaning “destroyed” and avi is the direct object, Jacob. However, this explanation is flawed: Why would the farmer start with a statement about Laban? And how is Laban connected to Jacob’s going down to Egypt?
Two generations later, Rashi’s own grandson, Rashbam, argues with his grandfather, and provides a completely different take on those three Hebrew words. According to Rashbam, it means, “My father Abraham was an Aramean lost and exiled from his birthplace, Aram.”
Ibn Ezra, the 12th century Spanish commentator, also weighs in against Rashi’s interpretation, and his argument is persuasive: What is the point of saying that Laban sought to destroy my father and he went down to Egypt when Laban did not cause Jacob to go down to Egypt?
According to Ibn Ezra, this statement has nothing to do with Laban. Its meaning is this: I did not inherit this land from my father because he, Jacob, was poor when he came to Aram; he, too, was a sojourner in Egypt and was few in number. Afterwards, he became a great nation, and you, God, brought us out of slavery gave us this goodly land.
So why did the Haggadah quote the Midrash which portrays Laban as an evil person planning to destroy Jacob’s entire family?
It seems the Haggadah had an agenda. Undoubtedly, one of the Haggadah’s main goals was to uplift the spirits of the Jewish people after the exile by the Romans, and tell us that Hashem will redeem us, as He did when we were in Egypt. It was thus necessary to portray Laban as an evildoer and to stress how God saved Jacob from Laban’s malicious plans.
However, viewing Laban as an archenemy contradicts the Biblical text. Laban as a destroyer of Jacob? Au contraire, Laban heeded God’s warning, and made peace with Jacob, vowing never to hurt Jacob or anyone in his family. Look at the text:
“Laban answered Jacob: … Come now, let’s make a covenant, you and I, and let it serve as a witness between us … This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not go past this heap to your side to harm you and that you will not go past this heap and pillar to my side to harm me … After they had eaten, they spent the night there. Early the next morning, Laban kissed his grandchildren and his daughters, and blessed them. Then he left and returned home.” (Genesis 31:44-54)
Laban is an example of the human ability to overcome hatred and work toward reconciliation. Laban may have been a conniving double-dealer, yet he decides to avoid confrontation and make peace.
The Haggadah’s take notwithstanding, we should interpret the Torah to promote negotiation and reconciliation. Both Jacob and Laban transcend their primal fears, rising above natural feelings of vengeance, and showing us the power of forgiveness and peacemaking.
Shamai Leibowitz is the operations and ritual director at Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim.