Wandering Arameans

September 20th: Ki Tavo
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Memory is a curious thing. We can remember some things with great accuracy, while other things disappear from the mind. We need to remember, but our memories can be selective. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Judaism focuses so much on memory—on memory of the historical nature of our experience.

A case in point is the statement of identification that the Torah presents as a prayer before God. In Deuteronomy 26, we have the description of an ancient religious ceremony—one in which the worshipper presents to God the first fruits of his harvest. Though God presumably already knows who the worshipper is, the instructions include a statement of self-presentation—“This is me, God.” The ancient author seems to think that one’s approach to the Deity requires particular information and memories.

Think of moments when we present ourselves—at social gatherings, in job interviews, at a doctor’s office, or running for an elected position. Though our lives can be described with lots of information, we tailor our introduction to fit the context. The purpose of this ritual is appreciation, and the Torah prescribes a review of the long-term relationship between God and the worshipper: “My father was a wandering (or fugitive) Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and wonders. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

You may remember this prayer from the Passover Seder—another ritual where memory is very important.

Sometimes, memory is important in and of itself, while, other times, it encourages moral development. Sometimes, history is a way of showing respect to the people who preceded us, while, other times, it presents us with examples to follow—or warnings. There are also times when history is “non-historical”—when it is a window less to our past than to our current situation. History/memory can show us a long-time context in which we are still very much a part. This is how I understand the term Arami Oved—the wandering or fugitive Aramean. It is not our past, but rather our essential reality.

The original statement seems to refer to a population of semi-nomadic shepherds who moved around in Western Mesopotamia in the Second Millennium BCE. They were not settled, and the Bible tells of varied experiences with the villagers and townspeople they encountered in their sojourning—their semi-nomadic travels. These Wandering Arameans felt a sense of spatial impermanence, and their social and religious mores were adapted to this reality. The villagers and townspeople, on the other hand, felt a sense of permanence. They felt belonging and ownership and secure.

Of course, the archeological record shows that no one’s permanence was actual permanent. In the many tels that have been excavated throughout the Middle East, we see layer after layer of habitation that lasted for a while and then did not last. A few centuries later, someone else would come and occupy the site, but their habitation was temporary, too. Even if people lived on the site for centuries, eventually something happened and the dust covered their city. Their time on the site is something we uncover, layer by layer.

My point is that impermanence is an essential truth in the human experience. We know that our lives are limited—as the Psalmist (90) says, “Three-score years and ten, or given strength, four-score years,” but we nonetheless hold onto a fantasy of earthly permanence.

Of course, we work at building families and businesses and institutions that will weather the test of time. Of course, we should be grateful for prior generations who built and maintained the families, businesses, and institutions that have blessed us in so many ways. And, we do have an obligation to future generations to continue the blessings that can go forward. However, all of these things are ultimately impermanent, and that context is important to remember. We are all, in a sense, Wandering Arameans.

If a family builds a business and runs it for years—for generations, the time could nonetheless come when the business is no longer viable. If a family clears land and farms it for years—for generations, the time could nonetheless come when the land is no longer suitable for farming. If some people build a city and do the things that make a city for years—for generations, the time could nonetheless come when the place is no longer good for a city. Whether the causes are environmental, political, economic, or military, the lands where our flocks have been pasturing—the land of our sojourning—may cease to be viable, and we need to move on to another place.

I do not mean to devalue the emotional attachment we have to places or institutions or the deep sadness that comes when change assaults us, but impermanence is the human predicament, and our success requires living with it and adapting to the changes.

 One may wonder why the Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and the Almost Sacrifice of Isaac are the Torah portions for Rosh Hashanah. Traditionalist may also ask why the Almost Sacrifice of Isaac is part of the daily Shacharit—the Morning Service. One explanation is both poignant and troubling. These portions are chosen to remind us that the ground on which we are standing is not sure. The things upon which we depend—the people, institutions, places—can change or vanish in an instant. To survive, we need to find something more secure.

The Psalmist (146) counsels, “Put not your trust in princes, in mortal humans who cannot save…Happy is one who has the God of Jacob as a help, whose hope is in the Lord God…Who keeps faith forever….The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, from generation to generation, Hallelujah!”

We are all Wandering Arameans, Wandering Jews, sojourners and wayfarers. We look for permanence in the world, but the only permanence is in God’s love and God’s ways. In them, we can touch eternity.