In the eyes of the Torah, we are all the children of immigrants

The tension between narrower and more universal interpretation of the Torah is highlighted by a well-known verse in this week's sidrah


Nowhere does the Jewish pendulum swing so rapidly from inclusiveness to xenophobia, from openness to suspicion, as it does at the start of this week’s Torah reading, the parashah of Ki Tavo.

The scene is set in the Temple in Jerusalem as the pilgrims bring the first fruits of the new harvest. Decorated with flowers, serenaded with flutes and with song, the first fruits are presented to the priest and the farmer recites the famous declaration:

“A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there. . . The Egyptians afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. . . the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. . . to this land, flowing with milk and honey. So now I have brought the first-fruits of the land, which you, O Lord, have given me.”

This is an extraordinary speech. As we declare our residency in the Land, with the first fruits of our harvest in our hands, we simultaneously declare, “I am an immigrant: my father was a wanderer, first in Aram and then in Egypt. Only by the grace of God do I now reside in my place.”

When read in this way, the parashah tells us that our connection to the Land of Israel is inseparable from our identity as nomads and strangers. Just as the Torah forbids us to offend a foreign convert — with 36 or 46 different warnings, according to the Talmud it instructs us to remember that we too are strangers and immigrants (Baba Metzia 59b). In the words of Rabbi Lord Sacks, “To be a Jew is to be a stranger.” When we bring the first fruits we declare, “I am an immigrant”.

But, surprisingly, many worshippers who read the parashah this Shabbat will never find the declaration above in the text. The Artscroll edition of the Chumash, ubiquitous in English synagogues and barmitzvah book-lists carries, in place of “My father was a wandering Aramean”, the words, “An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather.”

In this translation, our identification with the stranger has been displaced by fear; the narrative that recognises us all as immigrants has been superseded by “they tried to kill us”; universalism has been pushed aside by xenophobia.

What is the source of the Artscroll translation? It appears in Targum Onkelos, an early Aramaic translation of the Torah, and in the Haggadah, whose midrashic interpretation of the pilgrims’ declaration at the offering of the first fruits lies at the centre of the Seder service. The Haggadah never suggests that this interpretation reflects the plain meaning of the text, but it is quoted by Rashi, the famous medieval commentator, and then taken by Artscroll into its translation in preference to the suggestions of other commentators who retain the plain meaning of the text.

This is not the only occasion when Rashi replaces the simple meaning of the text with a more confrontational narrative: he sees Esau as a bloodthirsty character, destined from birth to murder; he describes the child Ishmael as someone whose crimes include idolatry, bloodshed and sexual immorality. None of these are hinted at in the plain text of the Torah.

The pilgrims’ declaration is not the only Jewish text in which universalism is interchanged with nationalism in the printing press. The famous mishnah ascribing to someone who saves a single life the merit of saving an entire world, is usually printed today with the words “Jewish life”, to suggest that someone who saves a single Jewish life has the merit of saving an entire world but leaving open the possibility that saving non-Jewish lives matters less (Sanhedrin 4:5).

Does it matter? Do we care that universal, open-minded Jewish texts are altered by printers? If the printed editions acknowledged clearly the moral choices that they had made, perhaps it might not matter. We could recognise that Jewish teaching carries multiple voices, that nationalism and universalism are both present in our tradition, and we could teach our children to recognise the tension between these forces and to make their choices.

But today’s printers do not desire debate. Artscroll relegates the plain meaning of the text to the end of a long footnote and never discusses the ethical choice that its translator has made. Nor do printed editions of the Mishnah acknowledge that their sectarian reading of Sanhedrin 4:5 is at variance with the vast majority of ancient manuscripts and witnesses.

However, where printers fail, teachers, parents and community leaders can step forward. Nothing prevents us teaching our children and our communities that non-Jewish lives matter, showing them the plain translation of the pilgrims’ declaration and reminding them that every Jew in this country is of immigrant stock.

For, if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?

Benedict Roth is an informal educator who studied Talmud at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem

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