Coded message, or history, in Deuteronomy?
By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal
SAN DIEGO — This week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, contains a declaration that the Israelites were to make after they had settled the land and brought their first fruits to the Kohen as an offering. The declaration begins: “I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us.” (Deut. 26:3)
The offerer continues reciting a short summary of Israelite history, from Jacob and his family’s descent into Egypt, to their enslavement, eventual exodus, and settlement in the land of Israel. This entire paragraph and its accompanying midrash are found in every Passover haggadah.
Part of the declaration is: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation.” (Deut. 26:5) The “father” referred to is most likely Jacob, whose grandparents, Abraham and Sarah, came from Aram Naharaim, Aram by the River.
The midrash has another understanding of the Torah. The midrash translates the Hebrew phrase arami oved avi (my father was a fugitive Aramean) as “Laban the Aramean tried to destroy my father.” In Rabbinic literature Laban represented Rome, a nation that oppressed the Jews. The rabbis used the midrash to give the people a coded message about the evil of their contemporary oppressors and God’s eventual redeeming hand.
Later commentators also wanted to explain the crimes of Laban against Jacob in their original Biblical context. Rabbi Moshe Ben Haim Alsheich wrote that one of the crimes Laban committed against Jacob was tricking him into marrying Leah instead of Rachel.
Laban had promised Jacob Rachel’s hand in marriage in return for seven years of his labor. After his years of service, the wedding feast was held. Since the bride was veiled, as is the custom with all Jewish brides, Jacob did not realize that his father-in-law had switched Leah, the older, for Rachel, the younger sister until it was too late! Jacob had to work another seven years in order to marry Rachel.
Today, before a bride and groom walk down the aisle, they meet in front of family and close friends for the bedeken. Bedeken comes from the Hebrew word bodek which means to inspect or check. The groom stands before his bride and makes sure that he will not be tricked and that she is, indeed, his bride. Once that is confirmed, he lowers her veil and blesses her:
“May you be fruitful and prosper.
“May God bless you as He blessed Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.
“May the Lord bless you, and guard you.
“May the Lord show you favor, and be gracious to you.
“May the Lord show you kindness and grant you peace.”
And then everyone says “Amen.”
The bedeken is a result of Laban’s actions. From Laban’s trickery a beautiful custom was born!
Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego. He may be contacted at email@example.com
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