Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Rav on Arami Oved Avi in the Haggadah

This past Shabbos, Dr. David Segal told me over a peshat he heard from the Rav zt"l, in which Arami Oved Avi as expounded in the haggadah is in line with Ibn Ezra and Radak's insistence that Oved is an intransitive verb. Rabbi Wohlgelenter also heard this from the Rav. I repeat this from memory, and from a brief conversation; therefore, I hope I have the details right.

The pasuk reads:

ה וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב.5 And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God: 'A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.

and the Haggadah's text is pictured to the right, and is based on the derashot in the Sifrei:

"Go and see what Lavan the Aramean sought to do to Yaakov Avinu. For Pharaoh only decreed upon the males {to drown them}, while Lavan sought to uproot all. For it is stated, "Arami Oved Avi..."

Now typically the understanding of this derasha is that in "Arami Oved Avi", the Arami is Laven, Oved is a transitive verb meaning destroyed, and Avi is Yaakov, who would be the one destroyed by Lavan. And the grammatical "problem" raised by Ibn Ezra with this derasha is that Oved is always an intransitive verb, meaning something like perished, such that one cannot "perish" another person in Biblical Hebrew. As a result, Ibn Ezra claims that the Arami is Yaakov, and the peshat meaning is that "my father was a poor Aramean."

The Rav's claim is that even in the derasha in Haggadah, the Arami is Yaakov. Because just how did Lavan try to destroy my father? Physically? No! Rather, it was when Lavan caught up with Yaakov on Har Gilead, and said to him:

מג וַיַּעַן לָבָן וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל-יַעֲקֹב, הַבָּנוֹת בְּנֹתַי וְהַבָּנִים בָּנַי וְהַצֹּאן צֹאנִי, וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה רֹאֶה, לִי-הוּא; וְלִבְנֹתַי מָה-אֶעֱשֶׂה לָאֵלֶּה, הַיּוֹם, אוֹ לִבְנֵיהֶן, אֲשֶׁר יָלָדוּ.43 And Laban answered and said unto Jacob: 'The daughters are my daughters, and the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks, and all that thou seest is mine; and what can I do this day for these my daughters, or for their children whom they have borne?

Specifically, look at the contrast that the Haggadah provides. Pharaoh only wanted to destroy the males, and we have pesukim to that effect, saying כָּל-הַבֵּן הַיִּלּוֹד, הַיְאֹרָה תַּשְׁלִיכֻהוּ, וְכָל-הַבַּת, תְּחַיּוּן. But where do we see that Lavan went after both sons and daughters, explicitly in the pasuk? The answer is that it is where he says הַבָּנוֹת בְּנֹתַי וְהַבָּנִים בָּנַי. Both the daughters and the sons of Yaakov, he claims for his own!

If so, the threat that Lavan posed to Yaakov and all of Israel was not a physical one, but a spiritual one. The threat he posed was one of assimilation, and one concerning the very character of the Israelites.

Now, going back to the pesukim, the words Arami Oved Avi indeed refers to Yaakov and not Lavan. It was almost the case that "As an Aramean, my father 'perished'." {This even works out with the parsing provided by trup.} And as a result of this, Yaakov went away, to prevent the assimilation, and descended to Egypt, etc.

The result of this analysis is that, indeed, even according to the Haggadah, Oved is an intransitive verb, and Arami is Yaakov. And even so, Lavan tried to destroy Yaakov.

My {=Josh's} own thoughts on this: First, the message of assimilation as destruction is a homiletic one, very fitting for our day and age. And so even if though this analysis of the derasha works out grammatically, and solves the famous dispute between midrash and Ibn Ezra, perhaps we should be on guard and consider that this was intended by Rav Soloveitzik more as a homily. Of course, derashot themselves are often homilies.

The banim and banot aspect in the pasuk in Vayeitzei is a pretty compelling one, and could easily provide the initial basis for this comparison between the actions of Lavan and Pharaoh. But even though it works out so nicely and neatly, it is not the only way this could have arisen. Lavan comes into the picture as the famous Arami, and it is the local pasuk in Ki Tavo which puts Lavan and his actions up against Pharaoh and his actions. And then pursuing Yaakov with intent to kill, which Lavan seems to be doing before being warned about it in a dream, could readily be the meaning of "Oved". As Lavan says:

כט יֶשׁ-לְאֵל יָדִי, לַעֲשׂוֹת עִמָּכֶם רָע; וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבִיכֶם אֶמֶשׁ אָמַר אֵלַי לֵאמֹר, הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ מִדַּבֵּר עִם-יַעֲקֹב--מִטּוֹב עַד-רָע.29 It is in the power of my hand to do you hurt; but the God of your father spoke unto me yesternight, saying: Take heed to thyself that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad.

In other words, the traditional understanding of the derasha works flawlessly.

Also, the language of the Haggadah suggests to me that it is Lavan acting. Pharaoh was gazar on the zecharim, but Lavan bikesh to uproot all. Why bother with the bikesh? Well, because he didn't succeed. True. But more than that, it seems to come out of his acting in Oved, yet not succeeding. When we look at the Targumim, we see בעא לאבדא, or

כו,ה וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב.וְתָתִיב וְתֵימַר קֳדָם יְיָ אֱלָהָךְ, לָבָן אֲרַמָּאָה בְּעָא לְאַבָּדָא יָת אַבָּא, וּנְחַת לְמִצְרַיִם, וְדָר תַּמָּן בְּעַם זְעֵיר; וַהֲוָה תַּמָּן, לְעַם רַב תַּקִּיף וְסַגִּי.

This word בקש parallels בעא, and is compelled by Lavan trying/wanting to take the action but not being able. I would consider this another point in favor of the traditional reading.

Finally, the Haggadah did not come into being out of thin air. The gemara says that one should be "doresh" from Arami Oved Avi (which probably meant expound rather than particularly make derashot in the style of midrash aggadah), and so the Haggadah bases itself on the text of the Sifrei, as we can see from the other derashot there. And the derasha in the Sifrei is:
לפני ה׳ אלהיך ארמי אובד אבי • מלמד שלא ירד יעקב לארס אלא
ש(לאובד*) • ומעלה על לבן הארמי כאלו איבדו

* (which Gra emends to להאבד)

I'll try to cover the particulars of this derasha in another post. But clearly the ending, of ומעלה על לבן הארמי כאלו איבדו, makes it clear that it is Lavan who is to be the actor here. And if the author of the Haggadah was relying on the derasha of the Sifrei, then it has to fit in to the text of the Sifrei as well.

Of course, we can argue in the other direction, that clearly in this instance the Haggadah goes off script, by discussing not only how Lavan wanted to destroy Yaakov, but the contrast between only sons vs. everyone, meaning also daughters. In which case perhaps it is a different derasha. But one can respond that this was just a stylistic deviation.

In the end, I think that the Rav's interpretation of the derasha in the Haggadah has its merits. But I am not sufficiently persuaded that our traditional understanding of the derasha is not right.

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