Torah and Midrash
seder night we do not stick to the facts of the Biblical story. Taking
our cue from the five rabbis of Bnai Brak who went on all
night, we are urged to expand on the Torahs version of the Exodus
in the style of rabbinic commentary called midrash. The Mishna specifies
the task at hand: Expound the whole section of My father was a wandering
Aramean (Deut. 26:5-8; Mishna, Pesachim 10:4).
This famous narrative recounts the story of a wandering people, exploited
in Egypt, who finally came home to their own land in Israel. In the days
of the Temple, beginning on Shavuot, the wanderers-turned-farmers would
bring an offering of their first fruits balanced in a basket on their
shoulders and recite their story of rags-to-riches, of wandering-to-rootedness
in the land. Every Jew knew this narrative saga by heart.
This concise narrative
is a jumping off point for midrashic commentary, associating the words
of the Biblical text with larger themes. The Rabbis recommended that each
family begin to expatiate on it, phrase by phrase. The Haggadah includes
one classic version of this rabbinic art of
interpretation, but the door is open to innovations. We have brought you
a rich menu of Torah and Midrash organized thematically:
1. The Torah : Deuteronomy
2. The traditional
Rabbinic Midrash of the Pesach Haggadah,
3. Our contemporary
commentary on the issues raised by the Midrash.
Ancestor Was a Wandering Aramean"
a Convert say: God of my ancestors?
received a question from Ovadia, the wise and learned convert, may the
Lord of Israel, under whose wings he sought cover, reward him for his
work. You ask me if you, too, are allowed to say in the blessings and
prayers: Our God and God of our ancestors, You who
have brought us out of the land of Egypt, You who have worked
miracles for our ancestors.
Yes. In the same way as every Jew by birth says his blessings, you, too,
shall pray ... For Abraham our Father taught the people, opened their
minds, and revealed to them the true faith and the unity of God; he rejected
idols and abolished their adoration; he brought many children under the
wings of the Divine Presence. For I have known (Abraham) to the
end that he may command his children and his household after him, that
they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice
(Gen. 18:19). Ever since then whoever adopts Judaism and confesses the
unity of the Divine Name is counted among the disciples of Abraham our
Therefore, you shall
pray, Our God and God of our ancestors, because Abraham
is your father. No difference exists between you and us, and all
miracles done to us have been done as it were to us and to you.
Know that our ancestors,
when they came out of Egypt, were mostly idolaters; they had mingled
with the pagans in Egypt and imitated their way of life, until the Holy
One sent Moses our Teacher, who brought us under the wings of the Divine
Presence, us and all converts, and gave to all of us one Law. Do not
consider your origin as inferior.
(A Letter from Moses Maimonides, 12th century, Egypt,
Talmudist, court physician, and head of
the Jewish community)
is No Freedom Without First Fruits
does the Pesach Haggadahs central midrash focus on the story of
the first fruits, which is associated with Shavuot?
Perhaps the point
is that Pesach is not only about the move from slavery to freedom, but
from economic dependence to productivity, from the vulnerability of the
alien to the security of the citizen.
Aramean Who's Who
THE MIDRASH on Lavan the Aramean who
was worse than Pharaoh is an outrageously forced reading of
the Biblical text. However Rabbinic midrash felt no compunction about
twisting the text to make an eyebrow-raising point. Perhaps they wanted
to take a jab at their contemporary enemies the Romans who destroyed
Jerusalem (70 C.E.) and later forbade the teaching of Torah (135 C.E.).
Coincidentally the name Roman (Romi) in Hebrew has
the same consonants as Lavan the Aramean (Arami). For
sermonic purposes the Rabbis typically exploit a Biblical text which
itself is unclear.
wandering Aramean of the Torah may also be Abram the
Hebrew, who lived in Aram and crossed the Jordan. The name Hebrew (ivri)
means the one who crossed over (avar) (Rashbam).
Or perhaps he is Jacob, who wandered first to Aram and later to
Egypt, where his grandchildren were enslaved. (Ibn Ezra)