D'var Torah, Ki tavo 5780/sat 5th Sept 2030

by Rabbi Leah Jordan

The writing is the opinion of the author and does not necessarly reflect that of Kehillah North London.

“My father was a wandering Aramean… He went down to Egypt in meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and populous nation.”

SO go the words of the most most famous verse in this week’s Torah portion, before the part that Claire just read so beautifully. “My father was a wandering Aramean,” this text is very well-known, as it is the core of the Passover Hagaddah. And this part in the Torah is where it is originally from.

Many of us, I’ve learned over the years, have our own individual, personal connection to this verse. Passover is the most kept Jewish holiday, so it is one of the texts, actually, that most unites us.

For many years, I have related it to my grandmother, and her family’s sojourn from the Russian Empire, from what is now eastern Ukraine, to California. When I was co-leading a seder years ago in Cherkasy, Ukraine, not so far from where her family’s old shtetl would’ve been, these words had special resonance for me.

For Michael, he told me this week, he relates it to his father, who was a ‘wandering Aramean Jew’, as it were, from Ghana.

I imagine others of us have other connections.

So why is this line so resonant? Why does the Torah command us to say it?

The Israelites are instructed to say these words — “My father was a wandering Aramean,” to tell, essentially, the story of Jewish Diaspora and Jewish suffering, and eventual, hoped-for redemption (as our Haftarah speaks of) — as they would bring fruits to offer in the Temple in Jerusalem. 

The intention seems to be — we must tell your story, about ourselves, to ourselves, and by doing that we will know our place in the wider world of people and things. We are the Jews. “Our ancestors were wandering Arameans.” We have suffered and been dispersed, and now here we are.

And THEN our Torah portion goes on: “The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Eternal, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression.The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O God, have given me. You shall leave it before the the Eternal your God and bow low before the Eternal your God. And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow.”

In other words, we Jews were wandering Arameans AND, precisely because of this, we must share our portion with the oppressed, the marginalised, the Torah’s words for that– “the stranger, the orphan, and the widow,” the people in biblical society who would were most forgotten, the most disempowered.

This is a very Jewish turn. THAT IS, we start with our own Jewish memory, our narrative of expulsion, dispersion, exile and suffering, and our eventual overcoming of those trials AND THEN the turn is immediately to — AND SO, nu, what do we do because of this story? WE care for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow.

One of my favourite teachers of Torah, Rabbi Shimon Felix, who taught me first when I was 16, and who is very different from me on the surface of things — an older, Orthodox, Israeli-American, who taught for many years in the West Bank — and who used to be a schlapper for Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks — writes that this week’s parsha is proof that, contrary to what Rabbi Sacks recently wrote — that religion and politics don’t mix — this parsha is proof, actually, that religion and politics are intertwined because, as Rabbi Felix writes, “As much as we are the nation that  was taken out of Egypt and brought to the Promised Land, we, equally, are the nation that cares for the oppressed, the stranger, widow, and orphan. In the modern world, doing that inexorably puts one in the political arena; on a meta level, politics determine how a society takes care of its downtrodden members. This is tragic, as one would hope for a politics in which all sides agree that we must care for the less fortunate. This not being the case, it is a religious obligation of the first order to make the political decisions that our national identity, our Jewish identity, demand of us.”

Okay, so far, so good. We’ve re-stated, as I think most of us would agree, that it is a Jewish obligation to care for others, because we have experienced suffering ourselves. BUT we all have been told this at one time or another — that the meaning of Jewish history is to teach us compassion…

And this is where the sermon could end. 

BUT in the time of COVID, of mass global suffering and enforced time for reflection, I think this central belief of ours, that suffering enobles, causes one to do and act better, is an op[en question. The Jewish American writer Peter Beinart often points out, for instance, that, for as many Jews as he meets who take the story of Egypt or the Shoah (the Holocaust) to mean that they must work for justice in the world, just as many take that trauma to mean we must be ever vigilant to threats to ourselves, to our community, that we must hunker down and make alliances with the powerful to ensure we survive. And we could self-righteously scoff at such a reaction, but if we do, we must also have human compassion for it — when you have been deeply profoundly hurt and traumatised, it is not easy to learn what the Torah is asking of us, no, commanding us today: To open your hand to others.

“It was in Buchenwald that I learned,” wrote Eugene Heimler, quoted in our very siddur, “from Jews, Christians, Muslim and pagans, from the English, Serbs, Rumanians, Czechs, French, Dutch, Russians, Greeks, Albanians, Poles and Italians that I was only one more suffering insignificant man; that the tongue my mother taught me…was an artificial barrier between myself and others. For essentially, as humanity, we are one…XX That I was not in any superior, that I am not different from the others, that I am but a link in a great chain, was among the greatest discoveries of my life.”

It was in Buchenwald that Heimler learned that — or one might now say — CHOSE to learn that– because, after all, that is what he chose to write in a book to teach us what he had learnt. Because suffering does not necessarily enoble. It can break and embitter us, understandably teach us that the putting up of walls is the best answer to the world’s threats. 

It a certain sort of faith, then, that this week’s parsha shows. Not faith in the sense of certainty, but faith in the sense that I mean ‘faith’ when I say it — faith as hopefulness in the face of uncertainty, a willingness to choose an attitude of open-heartedness. To have gone down to Pharaoh’s Egypt and still to be told — and to choose — to open one’s hand to the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the most marginalised.

So it’s not really about the facts of Jewish history and what they quote “teach us”– but about how we tell that history, how we turn it into story, into memory. Rabbi Felix again: “The answer is about History and Memory … It is the use of our history to orient ourselves, to explain ourselves to ourselves, and to others, that is the point …of Jewish memory, rather than the events themselves. Our memory, what we make of our history, is front and center. History is just the backdrop to what is really important: the way we understand and retell it and, thereby, come to understand ourselves and our world.”

IT’S REALLY HOW YOU CHOOSE TO TELL YOUR STORY– we wandering Arameans from Russia and Ghana, from all of over–  what’s more, to enter the camp at Buchenwald, and to come out choosing to choose compassion, openness, giving to the stranger, THAT is the choice of faith in the face of life’s cruelties. That is the message of this week’s Torah portion to us.

Shabbat Shalom.