A most familiar yet obscure phrase in the Chumash appears in the first Pasuk of Mikra Bikkurim (Devarim 26:5), the recital made by a farmer when he brings his Bikkurim (first fruits) to the Beit HaMikdash. The Meforshim have grappled with the meaning of the phrase, "Arami Oveid Avi," and offer a wide variety of approaches. It is important to understand the meaning of this phrase, as the Gemara (Pesachim 116a) states that we are required to expound this section of the Torah at the Seder. In this essay, we shall present the various interpretations given by the Rishonim, and will seek to explain the textual basis for Rashi's approach (presented as the sole interpretation in the Haggadah). We shall see that Rashi's approach teaches us a profound lesson at the Pesach Seder.
Rashi, following Targum Onkelos (for the most part) and the Sifri, explains that Arami Oveid Avi means, "An Aramean destroyed my father." Rashi believes that the Aramean refers to Lavan and "my father" refers to Yaakov Avinu. Rashi (following the Sifri) explains that since Lavan sought to destroy Yaakov Avinu, the Chumash regards this as the equivalent of having destroyed him. As we mentioned, this approach is incorporated into the Haggadah Shel Pesach.
The Pashtanim (commentaries who focus on Peshuto Shel Mikra, the straightforward and non-Midrashic interpretation of Tanach) adopt dramatically different approaches to this phrase. The approach that most differs from Rashi's is that of the Rashbam. He explains the phrase to mean, "My father was a wandering Aramean," with both "my father" and "Aramean" referring to Avraham Avinu. The Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni, on the other hand, explain the phrase to mean, "My father was financially devastated when he was in Aram." "My father," according to these Meforshim, refers to Yaakov Avinu. The Ibn Ezra rejects the Rashi-Chazal interpretation of the word Oveid ("tried to destroy") because the word Oveid is always an intransitive verb. On the other hand, the Taamei HaMikra ("trop") seem to support Chazal's interpretation of the word Oveid. Seforno offers an interpretation that combines the approaches of the Rashbam and Ibn Ezra/Chizkuni. He explains
that "Arami Oveid Avi" means "My father Yaakov (as opposed to Avraham) was a wandering Aramean."
The Basis for the Rashbam
The basis for the Rashbam seems to be the fact that each word of the phrase "Arami Oveid Avi" appears to match Avraham Avinu perfectly. Avraham Avinu most certainly can be described as an Aramean, as he lived in Aram for seventy or seventy five years of his life (see Bereishit 12:4 and the Ibn Ezra to Shemot 12:40). Oveid also seems to be an apt description of Avraham Avinu, explains the Rashbam, since he describes himself as a wanderer when he reflects upon his sojourns (Bereishit 20:13). Avi is also a highly appropriate description of Avraham Avinu, since his name means "the father of many nations" (see Bereishit 17:5).
Both Rashi and almost all of the Pashtanim disagree with the Rashbam and believe that the word Avi refers to Yaakov Avinu. The context of the Pasuk seems to support this approach, as the very next phrase states, "And he went down to Mitzrayim with a small group and developed into a strong and large nation." Just as the words that follow Arami Oveid Avi speak of Yaakov Avinu, so too Arami Oveid Avi refers to Yaakov Avinu.
In addition, one could argue that Yaakov Avinu fits into the broader context of this section of Sefer Devarim. This phrase appears at the beginning of Parashat Ki Tavo. In the previous Parasha, there are (as Rav Yaakov Meidan and others note) at least fifteen Pesukim that allude to Yaakov Avinu's life. Devarim 21:11 speaks about the Eishet Yefat Toar, and Rachel is the only woman in Chumash referred to as Yefat Toar. Devarim 21:15-16 describe a man who has two wives, one of whom is beloved and the other who is hated. The Torah commands that he not favor the first born child of the beloved wife over the first born child of the hated wife. This is quite an obvious reference to Yaakov Avinu (also see the comments of the Seforno). Devarim 22:6 commands not to take the Eim Al HaBanim, the mother bird and its eggs or chicks. The only other place where the phrase Eim Al Banim appears in the Chumash is in the Tefillah (prayer) that Yaakov Avinu
utters before his encounter with Eisav (Bereishit 32:11).
Devarim 22:13, which discusses if a man marries a woman, lies with her, and dislikes her may be seen as an allusion to Yaakov Avinu's marriage to Leah. Devarim 22:28 discusses a rape of a virgin Naarah. Yaakov Avinu's daughter Dinah was a virgin who was raped and is referred to repeatedly in Bereishit chapter 34 as a Naarah. Devarim 23:1, which states that a man should not lie with his father's wife, may be seen an allusion to Reuven and Bilhah (see Bereishit 35:22). Devarim 23:8 bids us not to detest an Edomite "because he is your brother," referring to the relationship between Yaakov and Eisav. Devarim 23:16 orders us not to return a runaway slave to his master, which is what Lavan tried to do when Yaakov Avinu ran away from him. Devarim 23:18 speaks of the prohibition of being a Kedeishah (harlot), and Tamar (Yehuda's daughter-in-law) is the only woman in Tanach given this appellation.
Devarim 24:8 speaks of a situation in which one has kidnapped one of his brothers, an allusion to Mechirat Yosef. Devarim 24:8-9, which instruct us to remember what Hashem did to Miriam, is interpreted by Rashi as teaching us to avoid Lashon Hara, which Yosef brought to Yaakov Avinu regarding the other Shevatim with devastating effect. Devarim 24:14 commands us to pay our workers in a timely manner, unlike what Lavan did to Yaakov. Devarim 24:16 teaches that a son should not die for the sin of the father, which is a message that Yaakov Avinu communicated to Reuven when Reuven offered his two sons as guarantees that he would protect Binyamin in Mitzrayim. Devarim 25:5 speaks of Yibbum, and Yehuda and Tamar's relationship was a form of Yibbum (see Ramban to Bereishit 38:9). Devarim 25:5 commands us to destroy Amalek, the nation that began with the grandson of Eisav.
We see that Parashat Ki Teitzei is filled with allusions to the life of Yaakov Avinu. Thus, it is hardly surprising that nearly all of the premier commentaries interpret Arami Oveid Avi as a reference to Yaakov Avinu, since this fits into the context of Devarim 26:5 and the broader context of that section of Sefer Devarim. This method of text interpretation is referred to by Chazal as a "Davar HaLameid MeiInyano," something that is derived from its context.
At this point, we need to explain what compelled Rashi and Chazal to interpret the Aramean as a reference to Lavan. An answer emerges from the question as to why the farmer who retells the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim refers to Yaakov Avinu's experience in Aram in the midst of his declaration. It seems entirely irrelevant to Mikra Bikkurim, whose focus appears to be exclusively on Yetziat Mitzrayim.
A possible answer is that Mikra Bikkurim is focused on the broader point of the fulfillment of the Brit Bein HaBetarim rather than on the specific experience in Mitzrayim. This may be deduced from the allusions to the Brit Bein HaBetarim in Mikra Bikkurim. Hashem told Avarham Avinu, "Your descendents will be strangers (Ger) in a land not their own for four hundred years, and they will be enslaved (Eved) and tortured (Inui)." Mikra Bikkurim also mentions these three covenantal terms (Ger, Eved, and Inui) in Pesukim 5 and 6. It seems that the essence of Mikra Bikkurim (and of the Pesach Seder) is to express our gratitude to Hashem for fulfilling the Brit Bein HaBetarim.
We can now understand the relevance of Yaaov's sojourn in Aram and Lavan's attempt to destroy him to Mikra Bikkurim (and the Pesach Seder). Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (reported by Rav Yosef Adler and others) asserts that Yaakov Avinu could potentially have fulfilled the Brit Bein HaBetarim with the twenty years that he spent in Aram with Lavan. Yaakov Avinu uses the Brit Bein HaBetarim terms of Ger, Eved, and Inui in describing his experience with Lavan (Bereishit 31:41, 31:42 and 32:5; Yaakov Avinu uses the terms Eved and Inui during the aftermath of Lavan's attempt to kill him, thus explaining the relevance of Lavan's attempted murder to Mikra Bikkurim and the Seder). Yaakov's children, the fourth generation from Avraham Avinu, could have constituted the fourth generation referred to in the Brit Bein HaBetarim that would return to Eretz Yisrael.
Rav Soloveitchik explains that this is the meaning of Chazal's comment (cited in Rashi to Bereishit 37:2) that Yaakov, after he returned to Eretz Yisrael, "sought to live in peace, and then the Yosef episode jumped on him." Yaakov Avinu thought that Aram was the suffering to end all suffering, and that his living in Eretz Yisrael would be as a Toshav (resident) rather than a Ger (stranger). Indeed, chapter 37 begins, "VaYeishev Yaakov BeEretz Megurei Aviv," which may be informing us that Yaakov thought he could live as Toshav (related to the word Vayeishev), in a land where his fathers were Geirim (related to the word Megurei). However, this vision was shattered by the Yosef episode, which necessitated our more than two hundred year detour to Mitzrayim, because it demonstrated that we were not yet ready for the blissful period promised after the fulfillment of the Brit Bein HaBetarim.
Accordingly, the Rashi-Chazal approach to Arami Oveid Avi is quite compelling even (perhaps) on a Peshuto Shel Mikra level. We mention Yaakov's experience in Aram with Lavan during Mikra Bikkurim and at the Seder to express an incredibly powerful point. Had Yosef's children lived in harmony, there would have been no necessity for us to suffer in Mitzrayim.
One may wonder, though, why this point was not presented explicitly in the Chumash. An answer might be that when the Torah reflects on prior events (as it does very often in Sefer Devarim), it only indirectly refers to certain events that reflect very poorly on us. Examples of this phenomenon include Devarim 1:1 and 10:4-6 (according to Rashi's explanation).
The allusion to Yaakov Avinu's experience in Aram with Lavan communicates a very potent message to us at our Pesach Seder. It teaches that just as the suffering in Mitzrayim would not have happened had Yaakov's children lived in harmony, our suffering today would not be necessary if not for our failings. Hashem intended that the suffering in Mitzrayim serve as the suffering to end all suffering. Our failings, however, necessitated our return to Galut where we relive the Brit Bein HaBetarim, as we state in "VeHee SheAmdah" (which follows immediately after our expression of thanks to Hashem for fulfilling the Brit Bein HaBetarim; "VeHee," "and it," refers to this Brit). We state that in "every generation (before Mashaich's arrival) they come upon us to destroy us and Hashem saves us from them," which is the process described in the Brit Bein HaBetarim. The words Arami Oveid Avi teach us that it is within our control to end this seemingly
endless cycle. Indeed, if we improve ourselves to the extent that we are worthy, Hashem will draw the process to a close and permanently end our suffering and bring us peaceful lives both as individuals and as a nation.