Leadership, Storytelling and the Identity of the Mystery Aramean  

By Miriam Lorie

Some of the most impressive leaders I’ve met have shared a common talent – they are master storytellers. These leaders can share their organisation’s history in such a way that listeners are made to feel part of a wonderful and inspirational journey. The story gives their organisation an identity, reminds listeners of collective memories, and makes each person feel invested in the organisation’s path, inspired to be part of its future. In short, storytelling is leadership.

World leading companies have caught onto this. Some, including Microsoft, Motorola and even NASA , even employ a corporate storyteller whose job it is to capture and share their most important stories.  At Nike, all the senior executives are designated corporate storytellers.

The Torah is full of storytelling moments. The entire sefer of Devarim can be read as Moshe’s masterful telling (and sometimes re-framing) of the Israelites’ history, the swansong of his leadership career.

But there’s one particular moment in Devarim (Ch. 26) which offers a perfectly-formed, concise and potted history – our people’s story in elevator-pitch form.  It crops up in the Haggadah, so is on my mind at this time of year. The context in the Torah is that of a farmer in Eretz Yisrael who brings his first fruits to the Temple. He is given a formula to recite which expresses his gratitude for the fruitfulness of the land, while also describing his family’s origins (Devarim 26: 5-10):

  1. My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meagre numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. 6. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labour upon us. 7. We cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. 8. The LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. 9. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O LORD, have given me.

The question that immediately leaps out from the story is – who is the fugitive Aramean? Which of our fathers “went down to Egypt with meagre numbers and sojourned there” and “there became a great and very populous nation”?  My first guess would be Avraham, who set off from Haran, identified later with Padan-Aram, and ended up travelling temporarily in Egypt. This is in fact the opnion of Rashbam.

My second guess would be that the Aramean is Yaakov, who was a fugitive on several occasions and who resided with Lavan in Aram for many years. His family then went on to become a populous nation in Egypt. This is Ibn Ezra’s opinion.

Our Hagaddah, however, moves things in a baffling direction, taking seriously the instruction in Mishna Pesachim to “drash” – creatively interpret – the passage. In the Haggadah, the Aramean is Lavan – perhaps because he is the only figure in the Torah given the title HaArami. However, this is as far as the similarities go.

So, rather than the Torah verse being translated by our Sages as, “My father was a fugitive Aramean”,  אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י  is translated as  “[Lavan the] Aramean tried to destroy my father”.  Drash by drash, the story is changed from one of gratitude for land and produce, into a story about persecution, first by Lavan and then by Pharoh. It ends with the deliverance of the people from Pharoh.  It is a perfect example of the quirk – or genius – of rabbinic interpretation and midrash-making, that enables them to move the story to a completely different place.  If you have time to look into it, I’d recommend Rabbi Alex Israel’s masterful analysis of this pshat vs drash tussle.

Whichever interpretation we settle for, I’m fascinated by not just the message but the medium.   In Devarim, a lowly farmer articulates his (or perhaps her) people’s history in front of Cohanim at the Temple.  At seder night, each family tells the story, with brownie points for participation from children.

In our tradition, storytelling is democratised.  Everyone, at every position in society, of every age, is part of the story. But more than this, each of us is empowered to ourselves tell the story – to perform on behalf of our entire people the leadership that is storytelling.

Now, go and tell!

Miriam Lorie is a European Leadership Fellow at the Pardes Centre for Jewish Educators. She has worked for Cambridge University’s Inter-faith Programme, & read Theology at Cambridge. She is a graduate of the Susi Bradfield Fellowship & the Adam Science Leadership Programme, and is co founder of the Borehamwood Partnership Minyan. You can visit her blog at miriammuses.com

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