Reading Our National Biographies

September 23rd: Ki Tavo
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This week’s Torah portion begins with a rather unusual passage. Attached to the rules for a religious ritual (the offering of the first fruits of the harvest), we have the actual prayer the worshipper is to recite. Though the Torah is full of communications from God and the rules for all sorts of rituals, there are only a few actual prayer texts, and this one is the most specific. It is also liturgical—intended to be recited on a regular schedule. Here is how it goes:

 “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt few in number and sojourned there where he became a great nation, mighty and populous. But, the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard slavery. So we cried to the Lord God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, our labor, and our oppression. Then the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesomeness, and with signs, and with wonders. God then brought us to this place, giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Now, behold, I have brought the first fruits of the land, which you, O Lord, have given me. (Deuteronomy 26.5-10) This is a prayer of both history and appreciation, expressing the worshipper’s thankfulness for the many, many blessings which have led to this happy moment.

 I was well familiar with this text—from its yearly reading in the Torah cycle and in the Haggadah for Pesach, but I was recently introduced to it in a different context. Last year, at the Hartman Institute Rabbinic Training Seminar (in Jerusalem), I took a class from Professor Israel Knohl of the Hebrew University, and he included this Deuteronomy 26 passage in a selection of “Biblical Biographies of Ancient Israel.” Professor Knohl suggests that each biographical statement of national identity selects certain aspects of history as a way defining our Jewish endeavor. As he titled the course, “The Past That Shapes the Present: Biblical Biographies of Early Israel.”

 The composition of such a national biography is akin to what we do when we reduce our whole lives to short biographical statements—on a resume in a job search, in a social media profile, or in a bio so we can be introduced when we speak. There is a lot that could be included, but only some details are chosen with the aim of presenting a particular image.

 The “My Father was a Wandering Aramean” passage is one such statement—written for particular purposes and with the intention of people regularly reciting it as a form of ritual self-definition. We can study the passage to see what themes the ancients—and later the compilers of the Haggadah—thought were important to their sense of Jewish purpose.

 In one of my Divray Torah on Rosh Hashanah (less than two weeks away), we shall be looking at several of these Biblical biographies with an eye to what they can tell us about our Jewishness:

(1) “My Father was a Wandering Aramean” from Deuteronomy 26

(2) Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments from Exodus 19-20

(3) The Expulsion of Ishmael and Hagar AND the Binding of Isaac from Genesis 21-22

(4) Jacob Becoming Israel from Genesis 32

 As we gather to reflect upon our Jewishness, each of these stories can provide us perspectives and aspirations—possibilities of meaningfulness. I’ll be sharing my thoughts on these stories, but, in the meantime, let me ask you to look at these Biblical passages yourselves and think about the Bible’s messages.

How do these national biographies shape the present of our Judaism, and how can they shape the future?