This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

An Arrant Aramean*

On a holiday that is supposed to commemorate our liberation from the tyranny of Pharaoh, it seems quite inappropriate, to say the least, for the Haggadah to suggest that Pharaoh was not really such a terrible enemy after all: Pharaoh only issued decrees against the males, but Laban wanted to uproot us totally.

Now really! How is it possible to compare the systematic brutality and murder perpetrated by Pharaoh with the minor shortcomings of a Laban, whose crimes seem limited to an antipathy towards Jacob, and a propensity toward deceit and avarice?

How did the rabbis arrive at this bizarre comparison?

The Haggadah bases the interpretation on its reading of Deuteronomy 26:5, which it renders as An Aramean destroys my father. The ancient Aramaic translation (Targum) specified the identities of the individuals alluded to here: Laban the Aramean wanted to destroy my ancestor Jacob. In a similar vein, the Midrash Sifre to this text observed This teaches that our father Jacob went down to Aram only to be destroyed, and Scripture credits Laban with destroying him.

Had it not been for the tradition expressed in the rabbinic works, it is unlikely that this interpretation would have occurred to any normal reader, since the Hebrew form oved has an unmistakably intransitive sense, meaning lost or wandering--not destroys and certainly not wanted to destroy. Classic Jewish commentators, such as Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, pointed this grammatical fact out clearly.

Usually, when the midrashic sages go to such extremes to contradict the plain sense of the Bible, we look for an ulterior meaning behind their words. With respect to the current anomaly, scholars have proposed some imaginative explanations.

A theory that was proposed back in the 1930's traced the interpretation back to early Hellenistic times, an era whose Jewish community has left us very few historical records. When Alexander the Great's Middle-Eastern conquests were divided among his generals at the Battle of Rafah in 311 BCE, the Jews of the Holy Land found themselves on the boundary of two rival empires: the Seleucids centered in Syria, and the Ptolemies in Egypt.

During the latter third century and early second century BCE, Judea was under the dominion of the Ptolemies. According to the hypothesis we are discussing, their delicate political situation made it awkward for the Jews to be outspoken about expounding the literal message of the Haggadah, in which the Egyptian leadership are cast as reprehensible villains and their resounding defeat is the occasion for a major religious celebration.

For this reason (the theory maintained), the author of our Haggadah passage chose to minimize Pharaoh's negative image at the expense of Laban the Aramean. Aram was, after all, situated in Syria, and the allusion would be grasped by contemporary listeners as a veiled denunciation of the rival Seleucid empire.

The Ptolemies were, on the whole, benevolent in their treatment of their subjects, upholding the authority of the Jewish High Priests. In return, they had good reason to count on their allegiance. It therefore appears quite plausible that the priests would have been scrupulous in their efforts to avoid giving offence to their Egyptian sponsors.

By means of this ingenious feat of exegetical manipulation (the argument goes on), the Haggadah was able to transform a politically embarrassing passage into a virtual declaration of loyalty to their political masters. The anti-Syrian reading of the biblical Exodus story would have resonated very favourably among loyal Jews during the time of the Maccabean uprising against the oppressive decrees of their current Laban, the Seleucid emperor Antiochus Epiphanes.

The theory's advocates went on to discern additional clues that supposedly pointed to the Haggadah's Ptolemaic provenance. Take, for example, the emphasis that is placed on the claim that the plague of the firstborn was inflicted not through an angel, not through a seraph, and not through any intermediary--but rather, by the Holy One, blessed be he, directly. This declaration would have dovetailed neatly with the prevailing attitudes of the priestly aristocracy. As proponents of the Sadducee theology, they sought to minimize the role of angels in the management of our world.

As attractive as they once were, at a time when historical Jewish studies were in a crude stage of their evolution, such fanciful theories attract few adherents today.

Looked at without prejudice, the claim that Laban was even worse than Pharaoh sounds more like a classic left-hand compliment that hardly serves to glorify the Egyptian ruler, or any of his latter-day successors.

When all is said and done, the interpretations found in the Haggadah should be read as typical examples of midrashic exposition. This implies that they originated as parts of sermons that were preached in the ancient synagogues. Following the familiar literary conventions of the well-crafted sermon, the preacher was expected to artfully manipulate the words of the sacred scriptures to make them relevant to their congregations.

When midrashic texts are read in this manner, we may readily appreciate how the liberties that they took with the biblical verses allowed the rabbis to address urgent concerns of their times--concerns whose relevance was not necessarily confined to any specific historical setting.

In the Haggadah, Laban is branded as worse than the genocidal Pharaoh. The reason why he merited this opprobrium was apparently because he made it so difficult for Jacob to get married, raise his family, and return to his homeland.

As I see it, by portraying Laban and Jacob in this way, the ancient preachers were arguing for the centrality of the family as the future of Judaism. It is indeed probable that many Jews, under the various economic, political and religious hardships that beset them during the era of the Talmud and Midrash, were reluctant to bring children into such a hostile environment. The author of our passage from the Haggadah countered such thinking with the claim that people who avoided or obstructed family life were as bad as Laban, and even worse than Pharaoh.

Homiletical discourses on these themes can be found elsewhere in the teachings of our ancient sages. One of the best-known examples ascribes the arguments to Miriam the prophetess, prior to the birth of her brother Moses. In the Midrashic account, her parents chose to separate in order to protect future offspring from a life of bitter slavery; and Miriam had to persuade them to the contrary.

The more scholars try to place classic Jewish texts in their historical contexts, the more stubbornly those texts insist on retaining their relevance to our own times. As the Jewish demographic picture continues to deteriorate, we could probably do with another reminder that a Laban can be as much a threat to our survival as a Pharaoh.

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Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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