“The World Belongs to God”
The month of Elul is a time for preparation for the High Holy Days. Some industrious hosts and hostesses are already making tzimmes and putting it in the freezer. Other kinds of preparations are being made, too– studying, thinking about and discussing the themes and meanings of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur so that these holidays are not just repetitions of prior years. Even our weekly Torah readings, seemingly disconnected from anything to do with the High Holy Days, can be read through Elul eyeglasses.
A passage from this week’s parasha is usually connected not with the High Holy Days, but with Passover, where it is found in the Haggadah:
My father was a wandering Aramaean; he went down to Egypt few in number and there became a great and mighty nation. The Egyptians treated us badly and enslaved us. We cried out to the God of our fathers. God listened to and brought us out of Egypt and into this place — God gave us a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deuteronomy 26:5–9)
This passage can be seen in at least three ways: its simple sense in the context of the Book of Deuteronomy; its meaning in the Haggadah; and, perhaps, its meaning for Rosh Hashanah. This Biblical passage constitutes a remembrance; because Rosh Hashanah is termed Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance, it is worth exploring what link there might be.
The Biblical context is the instruction to the Israelites of what they are to do upon entering the Promised Land; they must bring their first–fruits to a central location (later understood as the Temple) and present them to God with this speech of dedication. The speech is a remembrance. It reminds the speaker, and the community, of who they are and how they got where they are.
The Passover context depends on a word–play. Instead of My father was a wandering Aramaean, the Hebrew words Arami oveid avi are interpreted to mean An Aramaean tried to destroy my father. The word Arami indicates Laban of the land of Aram; the word oveid indicates not wander but destroy; and Avi, my father, indicates Jacob. The Hagaddah uses its interpretation of this Biblical passage both to explain the background to the Israelites’ migration to Egypt and to make the point that the persecution of the Israelites started not just with Pharaoh, but with Laban, Jacob’s own father–in–law. For the Haggadah, the passage beginning with the words Arami oveid avi functions as a remembrance or reminder. It is the key to opening the memory bank of the Haggadah.
The Sepharadic commentator Ibn Ezra argues against the Hagaddah’s interpretation. He explains that arami oved avi does not mean that Laban sought to destroy Jacob. He rejects the midrashic play on the word oveid and advocates for the plain meaning of the phrase: my father was a wandering Aramaean. Who is that referring to? Jacob — Jacob, who wandered in the land of Aram, and as a wanderer was poor. Thus, continues Ibn Ezra, we are being told that our ancestors were poor and that the land of milk and honey is not a legacy from them — they were too poor to give a legacy — but a gift from God. The Ashkenazi commentator Rashbam suggest a similar explanation, except that in identifying the wandering Aramaean he goes all the way back to Abraham. The conclusion of both commentators is the same. Your ancestors did not give you this land; God did.
It is instructive that this Torah reading, containing as it does the remembrance speech of Arami oveid avi, should happened to be read in the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is misleadingly called the Jewish new year. What it actually marks is the creation of the world, as celebrated by the Jewish people. One of the themes of Rosh Hashanah is the world belongs to God, not to humankind. Our use of it is a gift. Our settlement of it is a privilege, not a right. The purpose of Rosh Hashanah is to remind us of God’s work of creation, and also to remind God that God created us and should therefore have mercy on us.
The statement of the pilgrims to the Temple and our prayers on Rosh Hashanah serve a similar purpose. They are designed make us feel insecure. They aim to make us understand that we are not entitled to benefits; we hold our lives, our lands, and everything else on a lease from God, not by freehold deed. Insecurity usually leads to distress. Yet in this case, perhaps we can understand insecurity as the antidote to false security. False security is the notion that we can take all we have for granted. Constructive insecurity is the realization that tangible holdings are temporary. Perhaps this is what the High Holy Days are about, in part: getting rid of the illusion that benefits are ours by right, and realizing a more sober view of a world in which we are dependent on God’s gifts. A view of the world that is cleaned of illusions of the permanence of good things does not have to lead to pessimism. Rather, such a world–view can help us appreciate those good things when we have them and to come to terms with the world when we don’t.
The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.