The Wandering Aramean

It is customary in Jewish households to begin the Passover meal with the youngest child asking, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Each of my two sons took a turn at this when our family celebrated Passover at their grandparents’ house. The question prompts a retelling of the Passover story from the Book of Exodus. The traditional response to the child’s query begins with a quotation from the Book of Deuteronomy: “My father was a wandering Aramean” -- a reference to Abraham, who was called by God to leave his ancestral home and to wander in strange lands. This pattern of wandering was repeated with Jacob, Moses and Joshua – and later with Jesus, who told his followers “the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”

It might seem curious that the Jewish people, who have such visceral ties to their homeland in Israel, should tie their identity to being uprooted. Given their history, of course, this may be just as well, since they have had to survive for centuries without a land of their own; indeed, their ability to maintain their identity as a people under such circumstances is virtually unprecedented in human history. The Passover observance is meant to remind them that before they entered the Promised Land they were slaves in Egypt, strangers in a strange land. This understanding of who they are has enabled them to persevere in the face of exile and the destruction of their temple, as well as repeated persecutions, pogroms and genocide.

As a nation made up of people from somewhere else, we Americans are inveterate wanderers. My own family traces its roots through my father’s mother to Salisbury, Massachusetts in 1645 -- about as far back as you can get short of arriving on the Mayflower. My 102-year-old aunt still lives in an old New England farmhouse my grandfather bought at the turn of the last century. And yet he was not a native New Englander but an immigrant from Canada, descended from one of 50 million Europeans who came to the Americas in the 19th century. My mother was the adopted daughter of a Western mining engineer who married a Mexican. My wife’s family were Jewish immigrants from Latvia.

The history of the human race is overwhelmingly a history of migrations. From their birthplace in East Africa roughly 200,000 years ago, modern humans fanned out across the continent, then migrated around the Arabian peninsula to southern Asia, hugging the coast. Subsequent waves of migration moved north into Europe and across the Bering Straight during the last Ice Age into North and South America, where the populations who settled there were eventually overrun by Europeans coming from the opposite direction.

Why this wanderlust? Initially, of course, hunter-gatherer tribes were obliged to follow their food supply. Poverty and oppression played a part in later migrations, along with the hope of a better life elsewhere. For the Hebrew slaves who followed Moses out of Egypt, there was the promise of “a land flowing with milk and honey.” This was not virgin territory for them but the place where their ancestor Abraham, the wandering Aramean, had settled centuries earlier. This most mythic journey for the Hebrew people was, in effect, a return home. In a sense, this has been true of every such journey since Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden and condemned to wander the earth. Whenever we seek to put down roots anywhere, we are, on some level, seeking to reestablish our connection to a paradise that has been lost even to memory.

Deuteronomy 6:5
Matthew 8:20
Exodus 3:8

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