By Dr. Rachel Adelman
Through two thousand years of diaspora, the Jewish people have preserved a relationship to God and our tradition, keeping alive the promise of return to our homeland. At the center of that promise of return, paradoxically, is a consciousness of the gift of the land, God’s land—neither “your land” nor “my land”. This concept forms the centerpiece of this week’s Torah portion, which begins with the words “ki tavo/When you come into the land....”, and carries an ethical responsibility that emerges from the way we tell the story of our claim to that land.
Throughout history, the immanent connection of a people to its land has most often entailed a claim of indigenousness. For example, according to ancient Greek myth, the original ancestors of the land were said to be born of the ground itself as autochthones (a “people sprung from the soil”). The Jewish myth of origins also informs our relationship to the land, but our hope of homecoming, and the sense of ourselves as an “eternal people”, is grounded, ironically, in the claim that we were originally strangers in a strange land.
We are not an indigenous people, native to the land, but a nation whose origins reside in exile, and whose fate is exile if we fail to uphold the covenant. Exile serves as bookends, though not the hoped-for ultimate end, of our collective narrative.
This week’s Torah reading opens with a recap of that narrative history in the context of the first fruits offering (bikkurim). It is a formula every pilgrim must recite when they bring their first harvest to the priests in the Temple on the holiday of Shavuot. The recitation begins: “Today I declare to Adonai your God that I have come into the land that Adonai swore to our ancestors to give us…” (Deuteronomy 26:5), and continues:
A wandering Aramean was my father [’arami ’oved avi]; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to Adonai, the God of our ancestors; Adonai heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. Adonai brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deuteronomy 26:7-9)
The story is told in the first person singular and conveyed in the ever-present, as if entry into the land happened “today”, though the event was experienced by the collective long ago. Despite the destruction of the Temple, we retell this precis of our collective history yearly over the course of the Passover seder, as the centerpiece of the haggadah. But why is the story told as one’s own story (in the first person singular)? And who is the wandering Aramean, identified as “my father” or ancestor?
Based on rabbinic tradition, the great commentator Rashi identifies this ancestor as the patriarch Jacob, whom Laban his father-in-law, an Aramean, caused to wander and nearly destroyed. The plain sense of the passage, though, favors Abraham (Jacob’s grandfather) as the “father”. From the first imperious Divine command, lekha-lekha, “go you forth from your land…” (Genesis 12:1), Abraham was wrenched from his native home and set on a path to the “promised land” of Canaan. He is the quintessential Hebrew (‘ivri, literally “one who crosses over”), from beyond the river Euphrates (Joshua 24:2). Throughout his lifetime, Abraham wanders as a “stranger” and “resident alien”, even within the boundaries of Canaan (Genesis 23:4), the promise of redemption withheld until the future Exodus from Egypt. As God tells him:
Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not their own, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years…And they shall come back here [to the promised land of Canaan] in the fourth generation…” (Genesis 15:13-16)
The possession of the land is contingent on a period of oppression and exile. Unlike the Athenians, we emerge as a people from a common ancestor (the “wandering Aramean”) who has no claim to the land other than God’s conditional promise that undergirds the terms of the covenant at Sinai: “Now, then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples, for the land is mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…” (Exodus 19:5-6)
Obeying the Divine will as a condition of chosenness for this purpose is reiterated in this week’s Torah reading, in the prelude to the renewal of the covenant in the plains of Moab: “Today, Adonai has obtained your agreement: to be God’s treasured people, as God promised you, and to keep God’s commandments” (Deuteronomy 26:17). The land is a tenuous gift that is conditional upon loyalty to the covenant, and exile is a collective consequence for transgression.
But there is another dimension to this promise. Schooled as “strangers in a land not their own,” descendants of the wandering Aramean, the way we tell our history serves as the basis for a higher ethic, as it says throughout the Torah: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”. It is precisely the consciousness of being alien (with its concomitant sensitivity to the other) that ironically grants the right to dwell in the land.
The short history we recite, again and again--upon recalling the Exodus at Passover and offering the first fruits--reminds us of this tenuous relationship to the land, a contingent gift from God. What raises us to “chosenness” and confers a claim to that gift is the mandate of compassion for the stranger in our midst, and remembering that we were once (and on an existential level, may always be), strangers in a strange land. We are called upon to link living in the land with compassion for and just behavior towards those “strangers” who dwell among us.
Rachel Adelman, PhD is an assistant professor of Bible at Hebrew College.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work." Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.