In March 1898, Mark Twain, the “father of American literature,” published an essay in Harper’s Magazine titled “Concerning the Jews.” At the conclusion of this essay, Twain famously remarked:
[The Jew] has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
In less than two hundred words, Twain elegantly summarizes two thousand years of Jewish history. Under Pharaoh, the Egyptians enslaved us and cast our baby boys into the Nile. We survived, and so we celebrate Passover. Under Ahashverosh and Haman, the Persians planned “to destroy, to murder, and to annihilate all the Jews, from old to young, including women and children, on one day, and to plunder the spoils” (Esther 3:13). We survived, and so we celebrate Purim. Under Antiochus, the Greeks attempted to Hellenize the province of Judea by outlawing circumcision, Torah study and Shabbat observance. We survived, and so we celebrate Hanukkah. Under Nebuchadnezzar and Hadrian, the Babylonians and the Romans, respectively, razed our Temple and exiled us from the land of Israel. We survived, but we continue to mourn our losses each year on the 3rd of Tishrei, the 10th of Tevet, the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. “In every generation, they rise up against us to eliminate us,” our Haggadah tells us. “And the Holy One, Blessed Be He, delivers us from their hands.
In fact, this pattern may have begun much earlier than many of us realize. We tend to think that the Egyptians were the first people to oppress the ancient Israelites. But in this week’s Torah portion, as our text details the procedure for the “ceremony of the first fruits,” it is the Arameans—a small, relatively inconsequential people from the perspective of world history—who headline the list of Israel’s tormenters:
And it will be, when you come into the land which the Lord, your God, gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it and settle in it, that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you will bring from your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you. And you shall put them into a basket and go to the place which the Lord, your God, will choose to have His Name dwell there. And you shall come to the priest who will be serving in those days, and say to him, “I declare this day to the Lord, your God, that I have come to the land which the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us.” And the priest will take the basket from your hand, laying it before the altar of the Lord, your God.” And you shall call out and say before the Lord, your God: “An Aramean sought to destroy my father. And he [i.e. my father] went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there he became a great, mighty, and numerous nation. And the Egyptians treated us cruelly and afflicted us, and they imposed hard labor upon us. So we cried out to the Lord, God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great awe, and with signs and wonders. And He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground which you, O Lord, have given to me.” Then, you shall lay it before the Lord, your God, and prostrate yourself before the Lord, your God. Then, you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household you, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you (Deut. 26:1–11).
In this passage, the Israelite—who just recently settled the land promised to his forefathers—describes at length the persecution that his ancestors endured during their “long walk to freedom.” The text that he recites focuses almost entirely on the exodus from Egypt. Yet it introduces its subject matter with a passing reference to an unnamed “Aramean” who “sought to destroy my father.” Traditionally, we identify this “father” as the patriarch Jacob, and the “Aramean” as his father-in-law, Laban (see Gen. 29-32). But why are these two characters mentioned at all? What do they add to our text that the narrative of the exodus fails to touch upon? How, in other words, is the ceremony of the “first fruits”—or our appreciation of the collective Israelite experience— somehow enhanced by recalling the history between Jacob the patriarch and Laban the Aramean?
“You changed my wages one hundred times!” (Genesis 31:41)
Perhaps the most natural distinction we can draw between Laban and Pharaoh concerns the quality of sustenance that each provided to the Israelite(s) under his watch. In Egypt, the Israelites were beaten, enslaved and murdered. But they never had to worry about where their next meal was coming from. Indeed, the very reason Joseph’s brothers descended to Egypt in the first place was that they were looking for something to eat (Gen. 42). Abraham also immigrated to Egypt to avoid famine in Canaan (Gen. 12), and Isaac contemplated doing so too (Gen. 26). Nor was the Egyptian diet restricted to bare essentials. If we take the Israelites at their word, then they dined lavishly in Egypt: “in Egypt, we sat by pots of meat and ate bread to our fill” (Exod. 16:3); “we remember the fish we ate in Egypt free of charge, and the cucumbers, watermelons, leeks, onions and garlic!” (Num. 11:5).
By contrast, Jacob’s tenure in Laban’s house was characterized by intense economic uncertainty. Jacob shepherded Laban’s flock for two decades. Initially, Laban offered to compensate Jacob for his service by awarding his son-in-law any “speckled” offspring that the herds would bear. But when Laban’s sheep started giving birth to speckled lambs, Laban offered Jacob the “spotted” ones instead; and when the lambs came out spotted, Laban offered the “ringed” ones; and when they came out ringed, he offered the white ones; and when they came out white, he offered brown ones (see Gen. 30-31). Finally, Jacob confronted his employer:
Already twenty years I have been with you, and never once did I bring you anything preyed upon by wild animals. [If any of your sheep was injured], I would suffer its loss; from my pay you would demand it, whether it was stolen by day or by night. [Moreover], I was consumed by heat during the day and by frost at night, and my sleep wandered from my eyes…. and you changed my wages one hundred times. Had not the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, been for me, you would now have sent me away empty handed…! (Gen. 31:38-41).
Against this backdrop, the ceremony of the first fruits takes on entirely new meaning. An Israelite who brings his bikkurim to the Temple in Jerusalem is literally relinquishing to God the “first fruits” of his labor. This is an supreme sacrifice, and it requires extraordinary faith on the part of the individual Israelite—especially when one considers how mightily his grandfather once had to struggle in order to provide for his family. Simultaneously, the ceremony of the bikkurim bears proud testimony to how far the nation of Israel has progressed, in material terms: Jacob’s descendants can afford to forfeit the product of today’s harvest—something their forefather would never have dared to do—because they have confidence that tomorrow will yield an abundance of its own.
“All that you see is mine” (Genesis 31: 43)
Another important matter to consider when discussing the differences between the “Egyptian bondage” and the “Aramean bondage” is that of personal identity. In Egypt, the Israelites were able to (or, more accurately, were required to) remain distinct from their masters. Much of this had to do with Egyptian xenophobia: even in the days of Joseph, “the Egyptians set [a table] for him and for his brothers separately, and for the Egyptians who ate with them separately, because the Egyptians could not eat bread alongside the Hebrews, for it was an abomination to the Egyptians” (Gen. 43:32). Likewise, the Israelites were geographically isolated from the Egyptians, inhabiting their own region—Goshen—“because all shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians” (Gen. 46:34). Perhaps it was partly with these verses in mind that our sages stated in a Midrash on our Torah portion: “‘And there they became a nation’—this teaches us that the Israelites were unique from the Egyptians in their clothing, their food and their language” (Lekah Tov Ki Tavo 41a).
By contrast, Laban actively prevented Jacob from developing any sense of self. After his eleventh child is born, Jacob—who has spent his entire married life in Laban’s service—turns to his father-in-law with a reasonable request: “Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, and I will go… When will I establish my own household?” (Gen. 31:26-30). But Laban does not recognize the existence of “Jacob’s household.” As far as Laban is concerned, l’état, c’est moi: “your daughters are my daughters, and your sons are my sons, and your animals are my animals, and all that you see is mine!” (Gen. 31:43). Laban essentially denies Jacob’s individuality. The Aramean lays claim to everything Jacob has and, in a sense, to everything Jacob is.
But the ceremony of the bikkurim undermines these claims. An Israelite who brings to the Temple the very first fruits of his labor announces to the Labans of the world that, no, my wealth does not belong to you. In fact, my wealth does not even belong to me—it belongs to Hashem, and I must manage it as He has commanded me. “All that you see is mine,” declares Laban. Not so, counters the God of Jacob. “The land is Mine” (Lev. 25:23); indeed, “the entire world is Mine” (Exod. 19:5). Or, in the words of Jeremiah:
Thus says the Lord: Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom, nor the strong man boast of his strength, nor the rich man boast of his riches. But let him that boasts exult in this: that he understands and knows Me. For I am the Lord who practices kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth; for in these things I delight, says the Lord (Jeremiah 9:23).
Jeremiah teaches us to view our gifts and talents as divine stipends which God grants us so that we can perform the acts of “kindness, justice and righteousness” that He desires of us. That is one of the ideas underlying the ceremony of the bikkurim as well.
“You are my bone and flesh” (Genesis 29:14)
Until now we have been following the lead of Rashi and the authors of the Haggadah, all of whom identify the “Aramean” in our Torah portion as Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law. Yet if Rashi’s interpretation is correct, then the verse which we have been studying together would have read more clearly had it simply stated that “Laban sought to destroy my father.” What the Torah actually says, though, is that “an Aramean sought to destroy my father.” Why—according to Rashi—does the Torah leave out Laban’s name, and insist upon referring to him by his nationality instead?
In the previous two sections we attempted to draw sharp distinctions between the “Egyptian bondage” and the “Aramean bondage.” On some level, however, these distinctions are totally irrelevant. Even had Laban treated Jacob in precisely the same manner that Pharaoh had treated his descendants, the nature of suffering experienced by those on the receiving end would never be the same. Pharaoh is an Egyptian while Laban is an Aramean. To the Israelite who is being oppressed, this fact alone makes a world of difference.
The Egyptians were a foreign people as far as the Israelites were concerned. “You were a stranger in the land of Egypt,” the Torah reminds them over and again. There was no common language, no common culture, and no common history between the two nations. We interacted with the Egyptians when we needed them, and the Egyptians interacted with us when they needed us. They did not particularly like us or respect us, though; in fact, they found us “abominable.” This does not excuse their decision to enslave us, of course. It does, however, render it far less surprising. Perhaps the Egyptians’ behavior towards us was even predictable.
Yet the Aramean’s behavior was not. Unlike the Egyptian, the Aramean was not the “other.” He was our brother. Abraham was born in Aram, after all. His son married an Aramean (Rebecca) and his grandson, Jacob, married two of them (Rachel and Leah). These girls were Laban’s sister and daughters. “עצמי ובשרי אתה,” proclaimed Laban upon Jacob’s arrival: you are my bone and flesh. “הכי אחי אתה”—homiletically: you are my closest brother! The relationship between Israel and Aram should have been one of love and camaraderie. Thus, when Laban turned on Jacob, he was not only hurting his son-in-law physically and financially—he was also hurting him personally. “In every generation, they have tried to destroy us,” we recite each year. Tragically, the efforts of our enemies to “destroy” us are something that we have come to expect. But the disappointment and the disillusion we feel when somebody who we considered our “brother” winds up treating us like his enemy—that, we have never gotten used to.
“He is my brother” (I Kings 20:32)
There is an interesting epilogue to the Jacob/Laban saga that appears much later in Tanach. King Ahab (“Brother-Father”) of Israel receives delegates from King Ben-Haddad (“Son-Friend”?) of Aram, who deliver a preposterous message:
And Ben-Haddad the king of Aram gathered all his army and thirty-two kings with him and horses and chariots, and he went up and besieged Samaria and waged war with it. And he sent messengers to Ahab the king of Israel to the city. And he said to him: “Thus said Ben-Haddad ‘Your silver and gold are mine; your beautiful wives and children are mine’” (I Kings 20:1-3).
Ben Haddad’s assertion echoes that of Laban centuries prior. To Jacob, Laban had claimed that “your daughters are my daughters, and your sons are my sons, and your animals are my animals, and all that you see is mine” (Gen. 31:43); to Ahab, Ben Haddad claims: “your silver and gold are mine and your beautiful wives and children are mine.” It is an outrageous claim. Yet Ahab complies—and Ben Haddad is still not satisfied:
And the king of Israel answered him and said: “As you say, my master, the king, I am yours as well as all that is mine.” And the messengers returned and said, “Thus said Ben- Haddad, ‘As I have sent to you saying, “Your silver and your gold, your wives, and your children you shall give to me.” But at this time tomorrow I will send my servants to you, and they will search your house and the houses of your servants, and anything you prize they will put in their hands and take it away” (I Kings 20:4-6)
After Ahab agrees to forfeit his wealth to Ben Haddad, Ben Haddad ups the ante: suddenly, the Aramean monarch demands to “search [i.e. raid] your house and the house of your servants,” like Laban had once done to Jacob (see Gen. 31:30-37). At this point, Ahab realizes that “this man is looking for trouble” (I Kings 20:7) and prepares for war. The Arameans then attack Israel with a tremendous force, anticipating easy victory; instead, they are decidedly defeated. But Ben Haddad is not done there. Where others in his position might decide to cut their losses, the king of Aram elects to regroup and rearm, and launches another offensive the following year. Aram does not fare any better the second time around: its army is routed and its leaders are forced to flee for their live. Still, Ben Haddad does not despair. The king knows who he is dealing with, after all:
… Ben-Haddad fled and came into the city into a chamber within a chamber. And his servants said to him, “Behold; we have heard that the kings of the House of Israel are kindly kings. Let us put sackcloth on our loins and ropes on our heads and let us go out to the king of Israel—perhaps he will spare your life.” So they girded sackcloth on their loins and ropes on their heads, and they came to the king of Israel and said, “Your servant Ben-Haddad said, “Please, may my life be spared.” And he said, “Is he still alive? He is my brother.” And the people interpreted this as a [positive] omen, and they quickly copied from him, saying: “Your brother Ben-Haddad.” And he said, “Come and take him.” Ben-Haddad went out to him, and he helped him climb up into the chariot (I Kings 20:30-33).
Ben Haddad had spent the past few years making life miserable for the Israelites. He tried to humiliate their king, raid their treasury, conquer their territory and decimate their military. He also rejected every opportunity for peace that Ahab had extended to him. Yet when it is convenient for him, Ben Haddad is quick to remind Ahab that he was his “brother.” Laban had tried the same tactic with Jacob and failed. But Ben Haddad succeeds. “He is my brother!” effuses the king of Israel. As an individual, Ahab’s magnanimity is perhaps admirable; as the leader of his country, however, it is grossly irresponsible. “Because you have released Ben Haddad,” chastised Hashem, “it will be your life instead of his life and your people instead of his people” (I Kings 20:42). This is not a punishment as much as a natural consequence: you cannot help those who act cruelly without harming those who act decently.
“The wolf shall lie with the lamb” (Isaiah 11:6)
The ceremony of the bikkurim is one of the first rituals that the Israelite performs upon entering into the land of Canaan. During this ceremony, the Israelite mentions two nations in particular: the Egyptians and the Arameans. A lot separates these two peoples, as we have seen. Yet they also share one essential feature: neither the Egyptian nor the Aramean is exactly what he appears to be.
On the one hand, an Israelite must remember “not to despise the Egyptian, for you were a guest in his land” (Deut. 23:8). Even those who we regard as our enemies are capable of beneficence. On the other hand, the Israelite must also remember that “an Aramean sought to destroy my father” (Deut. 26:5). Even those who we regard as our friends are capable of betrayal. Life, in other words, is not black and white. It is complex and dynamic. People change, for good and for bad.
“It takes great courage to see the world in all its tainted glory, and still to love it,” wrote the celebrated Irish playwright Oscar Wilde. That is Judaism’s call to mankind. Naiveté is no virtue, but neither is cynicism. We must not pretend that things are other than they are; yet we dare not assume that as they are, so shall they always remain. Our task is to view the world that is, without taking our sights off the world that ought to be:
In those days, the wolf will lie down with the lamb and the leopard will lie down with the kid; and a calf, a cub and a fatling will walk together, and a young child will lead them. A cow and bear will graze and their young will lie down together; and a lion, like cattle, will eat hay. A suckling will play by a viper’s hole; and a newly weaned child will stretch his hand toward an adder’s lair. They will neither injure nor destroy in all of My sacred mountain; for the earth will be as filled with the knowledge of Hashem as water covering the sea bed (Isa. 11:6-9).
Isaiah’s prophecy represents an ideal—it does not describe a reality. We must be honest enough to admit that we have not yet established “a brotherhood of man.” But we must be bold enough to believe that we still can.