Ki Tavo - My Mothers and Father Were Wandering Arameans

Ki Tavo- My Mothers and Father Were Wandering Arameans

People are always asking me about my background. “Where did you grow up? What were your parents like? Were they religious?” It seems to be part of a getting-to-know-you ritual. This sense that roots matters seems to be programmed into us, like a spiritually genetic piece of DNA. Judaism understands this well: in fact it commands us to remember our origins—in our daily prayers, in our Shabbat and holiday prayers, and through our rituals.

"A Torah portion that we read this month, Ki Tavo ("When you come in"), details a ritual to be performed when you come to ”the land which YHVH your G’d gives your for an inheritance.” You are to go to the kohen (priest) with a thanks offering, and recite the formula, “Arami oved avi”, usually translated as “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt …And G’d brought us forth out of Egypt. . .into this land flowing with milk and honey” Deut. 26:1-9."

We recite this phrase in the Passover Haggadah, as we retell the sacred story of our people. We recite it because it is difficult to get out of Egypt, our own darkest places, without coming to terms with our ancestral inheritance, and without acknowledging G’d as our helper and guide.

I have begun to retell the story as “My mothers and father were wandering Arameans”, for surely I am the product of my mother and my father (may their memories be for blessing), my grandmothers and my grandfathers, of Jacob (the wandering Aramean) and of Leah and Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah. As the years since my parents’ passing grow in number, I see more clearly the gifts they both have given me and my children.

My last child is now preparing for her wedding, and she is savoring memories of her Grandma, my mother. Grandma was the one whose Torah, whose teaching, was of marriage and family. Not a visit would pass without my mother gleefully recounting tales of her long life with my father, and how she guided him to professional success and personal happiness. “Marriage is not 50-50,” she would say, “It’s 100-100.”

My most precious physical inheritance is the box of hundreds of letters that my father sent her during their long-distance courtship. She was in New York City , and he was at Harvard, racing to finish his Ph.D. in time for their wedding.

A few weeks ago, I decided to give one to my daughter as a wedding present. It begins, “Sweetheart, do you really want to know what sort of wedding I think we should have? Alright then, I’ll tell you. We should have the kind of wedding that will make you most happy. And that, I think, is one that will allow you to dress up in a beautiful gown and be admired by a throng of people. It would be really criminal not to let people see how beautiful you will look in bridal costume. About the details I am going to say nothing, except that a temple is to be preferred to a hall.”

Now my mother was not beautiful by movie-star standards, but he thought she was the most beautiful and wisest woman in the world. She in turn thought he was the most brilliant and kindest man in the world. They lived to celebrate their 60th anniversary.

My mother and father believed in Love, if not in G’d. They believed in family and synagogue, if not in kashrut. They lived a life of commitment to their extended family, and to the Jewish people. My mother’s mother was Orthodox. Her father, as well as my father’s parents, were largely secular. My mother’s sister was Conservative. My parents were Reform. We all enjoyed frequent visits as well as holidays with a flock of other relatives. I remember my mother often saying of some member of the extended family, “She’s family. I’m not going to fight. Being right is less important than being together.”

As we are in the month before Rosh HaShannah, we are in the time of year where attending to our own sacred stories is the center of our holiday preparation. Tradition asks us to reassess our relationships and our path, and reconnect with family and community where there may be strain or anger.

May the Source of Peace bless us all with longing for connection, and help us find appreciation and forgiveness—for ourselves, our families, and our communities.