September 19, 2019 – Ki Tavo
This week’s parashah is “Ki Tavo”. We find it in the Book of Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8. Coming just before Rosh Ha’Shanah it seems appropriate that the weekly section discusses the consequences of our actions. The text indicates that the consequences of our actions will result in either blessings or curses. Blessings and curses, however, are not this section’s only theme. The parashah also deals with the issue of thankfulness, on both the personal and national levels. Expressing thankfulness is never easy and perhaps it is for this reason that this week’s parashah contains one of the few times that the Tanach (Hebrew Scripture) gives us a specific liturgical formula for how we are to address G-d in moments of thankfulness. In Chapter 26:5, the text provides a “recipe” by which we express our sense of gratitude.
This formula is familiar to anyone who has ever attended a Passover Seder. It begins with three untranslatable words: “Arami oved avi”. Why does the text use this strange ambiguous sentence? The Hebrew is highly imprecise. In fact, in a language that prides itself on clarity of expression, one has to wonder if this use of ambiguity is not on purpose. Note the formula’s three words. They are so ambiguous as to be untranslatable. The first word “Arami” means Aramean, but to whom does it refer? We cam argue that the word refers to Abraham, as he was an Aramean. He was not, however, a wander (see word two) but a traveler. Jacob, on the other hand, was a wander but not an Aramean.
The second word “oved” (spelt with an aleph and not to be confused with the word “oved” spelt with an ayin) could mean: “lost” and by extension “fugitive”, or it might mean “is being lost/is being a fugitive”, or even “a person who is wandering due to someone else’s actions”. Again it is not clear as to whom the word is referring. The third word “avi” can mean either “my father” or “my ancestor.”
It seems odd that in a phrase of thanksgiving, the sentence we are to utter has multiple meanings. Is there a benefit to the using of a formula that is so nuanced as to make it almost impossible to understand? What lesson does such vagueness teach us? Could it be that the text’s purpose is to teach us that expressions of gratitude to G-d are so personal that no two people can ever have the same sense of gratitude?
The text reminds us that gratitude comes about when we lower our sense of entitlement and learn to appreciate what we have rather than focusing on what we do not have. It is as if the text were reminding us that too many of us complain more than we show appreciation. Is the text telling us, in the most indirect of ways, to learn to be grateful for what we have?
From this perspective maturity and a sense of gratitude are linked in a process that demands that the bitterness of the past become the dreams of tomorrow. How well do you express gratitude? Do you take life’s challenges and turn the bitter into the sweet?