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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we open with words we know from the Passover liturgy, from the Haggadah, from our seder:

My father was a wandering Aramean
He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there
But there he became a great and populous nation. [Deut. 26:5)

In the Passover seder, these words help us to begin to tell the story of our liberation. In context, in our Torah portion, these are the words one is instructed to say upon offering up the first fruits, the first items harvested from the Earth, as an offering to the high priests and to God.

For those who took my OLLI class on Paul Simon and the Bible, we took a look at this verse earlier in the summer. In his classic song, Hearts and Bones, Simon sings:

One and one half wandering Jews
Free to wander wherever they choose...

Arami oved Avi. My father was a wandering Aramean. Wandering is inherent in our tradition. We wander in the desert for 40 years between slavery in Egypt and our arrival in the Promised Land. We know the journey could have been shorter. But we also know that the journey was necessary, so that a new generation who had not experienced slavery could be born, a new generation who had only known freedom and covenant with God would be the generation to enter the promised land.

What does it mean to be one who wanders? Rashbam, the medieval French commentator, instructs us to understand the verb for wander in our verse, oved, as the same as other instances of wandering in the Bible.

Abraham, not only our first ancestor, but also the original wandering Jew, relates in Genesis: “And it came to pass, that God caused me to wander from my father’s house...” [Gen 20:13]. Here, our verb for wander is hit’u. The same root appears in the next verse cited by Rashbam, from the book of Psalms: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek out Your servant, for I have not forgotten Your commandments” [Ps. 119:176].

To wander, to be lost, to go astray. We know this root from from our liturgy of confession and forgiveness, our Vidui, the alphabetic acrostic of collective sins we recite multiple times throughout Yom Kippur. The verb in question appears at the conclusion of our “alphabet of woe” —

We have sinned;
We have gone astray;
We have led others astray.

Tah-ee-noo. We have gone astray. We have wandered. We are lost.

This moment in our Torah, when we relive the declaration before the High Priest, offering up our first fruits, is well suited for this time of year, this month of Elul. Erev Rosh Hashanah, the eve of our New Year, is two weeks from tonight. In two weeks, we will stand before God and each other, ready to enter a new year. Ready to offer up our first fruits of 5781. Ready for the wandering to end.

For now, we are still wandering. Perhaps we are wandering in the sense of our Vidui - we have strayed, we have led others astray. We are lost.

Perhaps the wandering is part of our process, making our way slowly from the desert to the Promised Land.

Sforno, an Italian rabbi who lived in the 1500s, offers this note:

“A wandering Aramean, that is, someone without a permanent home of his own, who was therefore not ready to be the progenitor of a great people...”

While we are not physically together, we have a home - a home that we find when we join together for Shabbat, a home that we will find in our High Holy Days. We are at home when we are together. We are separated physically, and yet, we are not wandering. We are ready to be part of our people again, wandering through Elul until our New Year begins. May we continue to look inward, wandering toward places of growth, as we journey toward 5781.

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA
Wed, May 22 2024 14 Iyyar 5784