Dying Moses wanted his children to remember where they came from


A child asks a parent, “Where did I come from?” The parent breaks out in a cold sweat, realizing that the dreaded moment has arrived. It is time to explain sexual reproduction to the child. After the parent provides an agonizingly long and involved description of the physiological processes of human sexuality, the child interrupts. “Oh, I knew all that stuff already. What I really wanted to know was, was I born in Chicago or St. Louis?” A well worn story, but relevant to an understanding of the Parasha for this week — Ki Tavo.

The Book of Deuteronomy is generally understood to be an extended ethical will. Its setting is placed at the end of the 40-year wilderness journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Moses is well aware that he is about to die and, like any loving parent, seeks to impart as much wisdom to his children — the Israelites — as is possible.

He instructs them in a ceremony of thanksgiving. After the Israelites are settled in the land and have begun to produce their own crops, they are to bring the first fruits of the land to “the place where the Eternal will choose to cause His name to dwell.” At this sanctuary, the people are to present the first fruits to the priest in that place. When the basket of first fruits is handed over, the person making the gift is instructed to recite a brief summary of Israelite history. It begins with these words: “Arami oveid avi — my father was a fugitive Aramean.” While the translation of oveid is open to scholarly discussion, there is no dispute as to the meaning of Aramean. It is the name of a people centered at the apex of the fertile crescent (present day Iraq).

This same people gave their name to a language very close to Hebrew — Aramaic — which, at one time, was the international language of the ancient Near East.

Abraham is described in Genesis as a Hebrew. Some have mistakenly believed that this was an ethnic designation, a description of his tribe. In fact, it was a description of his social status — a landless soldier of fortune. Hundreds of years after Abraham, the term would become an ethnic and linguistic description. Abraham’s tribe was Aramean. Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, was sent back to Aramea to seek a wife for Isaac. Jacob flees to the home country, Aramea, to avoid the wrath of his brother, Esau.

So, where did we come from?

Our people came from ancient Aramea/modern Iraq. Moses seeks to insure that the Israelites will never forget who they are, what they have suffered, and how far they have come. More importantly, Moses wants the people never to forget that it was the Eternal who brought them to the Promised Land.

The recitation of our ancient history is not an empty exercise. It is one of the reasons we still exist as the Jewish people.

Rabbi Mark L. Shook of Temple Israel prepared this week’s Torah portion.