For the week ending 15 April 2017 / 19 Nisan 5777

The Haggadah: A Commentary on "Arami Oved Avi"

by Rabbi Shlomo Simon
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The Hagaddah, in retelling the history of the Jewish People’s exile in Egypt, quotes a portion of the verse in Deut. 26:5 referring to the Bikkurim ceremony (the bringing of the year’s first fruits to the Temple), which reads: “And you should answer and say before the L-rd your G-d, ‘Arami oved avi v’yered Mitzraima.… ” An Aramean destroyed my father and he went down to Egypt. Most commentators explain that the Arami (Aramean) referred to is Lavan, Yaakov’s father-in-law. How exactly did Lavan “destroy” Yaakov, since, of course, Yaakov wasn’t destroyed by Lavan? In addition, how is this “destruction” related to Yaakov’s going to Egypt, which in this verse seems to follow immediately? In fact, after Yaakov leaves Lavan he returns to Eretz Canaan, and is there for years before he is forced to go down to Egypt because of a famine. The Torah seems to be silent about these questions. It is left to the Rabbis to explain what happened and answer these questions.

According to Rashi (Deut. 26:5), the verse reminds us of the kindness of G-d, and how He saved us from the clutches of Lavan. Rashi explains that while Lavan did not succeed in destroying Yaakov, he tried to. Lavan chased after Yaakov when he discovered that Yaakov and his family had escaped from Padam Aram (Ber. 31:17-54). The Torah (in Ber. 31:29) quotes Lavan as saying that he intended to harm Yaakov, and that he would have done so were it not for G-d’s visiting him in a dream, telling him not to. Rashi (Deut. 26:5) relates a principle in the Torah that states: “If an idol worshiper wishes to do evil, even though he is unsuccessful, his thought is equivalent to an action.” Therefore, by wanting to destroy Yaakov, Lavan is considered guilty of that same act. As to the second part of the verse in Deuteronomy, referring to the eventual Exile of Yaakov and the Jewish People in Egypt, Rashi indicates that it is unrelated to Lavan. Other commentaries agree with Rashi’s basic understanding of the verse. Some, such as the Ibn Ezra, find that the Hebrew grammar doesn’t fit Rashi’s explanation, and that the Aramean was actually Yaakov, and that he, our father Yaakov, was a wandering, impoverished Aramean who ended up in Egypt.

However, let’s examine a direct connection that the Torah hints at, that has been seemingly overlooked. At the time that Yaakov took leave of Lavan (Ber. 31:44 et. seq.) the two of them entered into a treaty at a place that Lavan called Yagar Sahadusa,and Yaakov, translating the Aramaic into Hebrew, called it Gal Eid.

The treaty was essentially a non-aggression pact that required the two sides (Yaakov and Lavan, along with their tribes) to stay on their respective sides of the border (delineated by Yagar Sahadusa/Gal Eid), and not to cross it except for commerce or other peaceful purposes.

Before Yosef is sold by his brothers they place him in a pit. As they sell him he is drawn out of the pit by Midianites and then by Yishmaelim, and sold back and forth until he finally ends up being sold into slavery in Egypt. This is the beginning of the exile of Yaakov’s family in Egypt. It was well known that no slave ever succeeded in escaping from Egypt (hence it’s name “Mitzraim” which means “a confining place”). While the Torah makes no mention of where the Midianites came from, it does tell us where the Yishmaelim came from — Gilad, which has the same letters as Gal Eid. Why do we care where they came from? Why does the Torah give us this information? We have a rule that not even one letter of the Torah is extra. This information is obviously important. I have not found a commentary that explains this mention of Gilad. I would suggest that Lavan, a well-known clairvoyant, could tell the future, and foresaw the discord among the brothers. He knew where they would be at the time when they were deciding Yosef’s fate. Lavan could not violate the pact he had made with Yaakov in which he promised not to pass Gal Eid with the intent of harming Yaakov. So, instead, he slyly sent his agents, the Yishmaelim, from Gal Eid in Aram, to the scene of Yosef’s encounter with his brothers. Because the Yishmaelim were carrying commercial merchandise, they could pass Gal Eid to encounter Yaakov’s sons when Yosef was in the pit. In this manner, Lavan was not in violation of the treaty he had made with Yaakov. Commercial traffic between Aram and Canaan was permitted — only aggression was forbidden. So the plan to destroy the Jewish People (which could not accomplish its goal in the world without all the sons of Yaakov participating) was set in motion by Lavan. Arami oved avi v’yered Mitzraima. With Rashi’s explanation we now see that Lavan, by sending the Yishmaelim to sell Yosef as a slave in Mitzraim, can be said to have “destroyed” Yaakov and he went down to Egypt.

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