"Come and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our father, Jacob. For Pharaoh issued his edict against only the males, but Laban sought to uproot us all, as it is said, ‘An Aramean would have destroyed my father, and he went down to Egypt and he became there a great nation, strong and numerous.’"
One of the most difficult texts in the Haggadah is "arami oved avi." The Haggadah includes the Rabbinic interpretation of the verse, reading it as "An Aramean tried to destroy my father." This verse, is at the center of the Haggadah and its rabbinic interpretation differs dramatically from the Torah text. The traditional Haggadah provides a long section of midrash, rabbinic interpretation, in which the verses of Deuteronomy 26:5-8 are examined in light of the spiritual and political history of the Jewish people.
The midrash tells us that if you change the vowels from "oved" to "ibed," the meaning is changed from "wandering" to "destroyed." Thus, " A wandering Aramean was my father" will read, "An Aramean tried to destroy my father." Jacob lived in Aram, in Mesopotamia, while courting Rachel and Leah and working for their father Laban, an Aramean. Consequently, Laban is usually seen as the Aramean who would have sought to destroy Jacob, reminding us of the treachery of Laban, who tricked Jacob into marrying Leah before Rachel, then tricked him into twenty years of servitude, and finally tried to deny him his dowry. Laban may be viewed as the symbol of everyone who has tried to destroy the Jewish People.
While Rashi accepted this reading, Ibn Ezra strongly rejected it, in favor of the interpretation that the verse refers to Jacob, who, when he was in Aram, was lost. Rashbam also rejected Rashi’s interpretation, but argued that the verse more appropriately applies to Abraham, who can correctly be identified as an Aramean.
Why does the Haggadah consider Laban worse than Pharaoh?
R. Azriel Hildesheimer, a nineteenth century German Rabbi, explains that Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt because Joseph was already there. Joseph had been sold by his brothers into Egypt because his brothers had envied the way their father favored their youngest brother, who was born in Jacob’s old age. Joseph was born in Jacob’s old age because Rachel’s marriage had been delayed. Rachel’s marriage had been delayed because Laban tricked Jacob by giving him Leah rather than Rachel as a wife.
Had Jacob married Rachel first, Joseph would have been the firstborn and his brothers wouldn’t have envied him and wouldn’t have sold him into slavery. If he had not been sold into slavery, Jacob and his sons would not have gone down to Egypt. If they had not gone down to Egypt, their descendants would not have been enslaved under Pharaoh. We learn from all this that if it had not been for the act of deceit of Laban, there would not have been a Pharaoah as we know him.
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