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My Father Was Lost

Once settled in the Promised Land, the Israelites are instructed to give thanks for their harvest. In what is perhaps the first recorded Thanksgiving celebration, the Torah commands them to make an offering. “You shall leave the first fruits before the Lord your God and bow low before the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 26). Prior to bringing these offerings, the Israelites recite an encapsulation of their history proclaiming that it was God who brought them out of slavery to the land of Israel. 

This recitation begins with the words: “My father was a fugitive Aramean—Arami oved avi.” The English lacks the Hebrew’s alliteration. It also disguises the power contained in these three words. The first word uttered is: Aramean. My father was not an Israelite. He was a foreigner.

The implication is clear. The land is borrowed. It belongs to God. It is not owned or possessed. This is why the land’s harvest is shared first with God and then the stranger. “And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you and your household.”

Moreover, “oved” can be translated as “lost” rather than “fugitive” or “wandering.” Lost connotes something far more powerful. Our ancestors were not simply freed from slavery. They did not escape, but rather were lost. Abraham was not a wanderer. Instead, he was directionless—until God called to him. It was the call that set his path. It was the going out from Egypt that carved our direction.

Why begin the offering of first fruits with the recitation of these words? Why profess that our ancestor was a stranger? Why state that the founder of our faith was lost? To teach empathy for the outsider. To inculcate thanks.

Giving thanks is not about saying, “Look at the bounty with which God has blessed me.” It is instead, “Look at the bountiful blessings that I can share.” If the first fruits are borrowed from God, then there are no limits to the blessings we can share.

Recall that our ancestors wandered aimlessly. Recall that our ancestors were once strangers. And if and when we forget, we must say, “Arami oved avi.”

Say it often. Say it over and over again. Say it until it seeps into your soul.

And then say it some more.