My Father Was a Wanderer
Our Torah portion this Shabbat contains one of the only fixed prayers in the Torah. It is to be recited in the midst of the ritual of bringing the first fruits to the Temple.
The Mishna describes the celebration of this ritual. People would gather in their villages and towns for a night of merriment before beginning the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The next morning, accompanied by flute player, followed by an ox with golden horns, they made their way to the Temple. People stood at the sides of the roads cheering as the pilgrims marched into Jerusalem with their offerings, welcoming them to the holy city. When the pilgrims reached the Temple, the Levites burst into song and then, in the midst of all the joy, celebration and levity, the pilgrims approached the altar and recited the prayer, (familiar to us from its use in the Pesach seder) “My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there…the Egyptians dealt harshly with us …we cried to Adonai…Adonai heard our plea…freed us from Egypt and gave us this land…now I bring the first fruits of the soil which You Adonai gave to me.”
How incredibly powerful, after the party, the celebration, the wonderful high that the pilgrims must have been on, they recite a prayer in the first person, recalling the oppression of the past and acknowledging that their bounty and freedom is not because of their own merit but because of God’s grace.
Many commentators of the Torah have discussed these verses, this ritual and its meaning. Martin Buber notes that it is central that people are required to say “MY father…” it is not a prayer written in plural, it is personal, a direct link between the pilgrim and their history. At this crucial and significant moment the person is, through their words, joining hands across time and claiming their own place in history. But more than that, they recall, not the triumphs of our beginnings but the degradation, the humiliation, the suffering. In our moments of greatest joy, we are reminded that we had humble beginnings, that we have not always been so fortunate and that we should count our blessings.
Maimonides goes further and says the recitation is an antidote to materialism. He says: “People who amass fortunes and live in comfort often fall victim to self centered excesses and arrogance. They tend to abandon ethical considerations because of increasingly selfish concerns…bringing the baskets and reciting the prayer promotes humility.” (A Torah Commentary for our Times translation pg 159) Rashbam however believes that the significance lies in the fact that each person had to bring their own basket and recite the prayer. They could not deputize someone else, they all had to have the experience of saying: “My father was a wandering Aramean…” He suggests that as a result, the moment is life transforming for the pilgrim, they begin to see the world from a different perspective, remembering their beginnings, putting their own good fortune in the context of their former suffering. Reminding them, especially during the good times, to connect with and reach out to those who are where they once were.
We too must remember that our ancestors were wandering Arameans, that we were persecuted and oppressed, we suffered and we searched for a safe haven, a place where we could be sheltered and protected. As we read these passages this Shabbat, we look around us and see the asylum seeker policies of the two major parties forgetting our obligation to care for the stranger, to reach out and offer shelter. Instead we see an atmosphere which is heavy with the rhetoric of fear. I pray that we can find a way, through our remembering, to open our hearts to the suffering of others and speak out to create a way for our country to have secure borders whilst also treating all who seek a new life here with dignity and compassion.