The midrashic section of the Haggadah opens with a midrash on the verse (Devarim 26:5):
The Haggadah explains:
מה בקש לבן הארמי לעשות ליעקב אבינו, שפרעה הרשע לא גזר אלא על הזכרים ולבן בקש לעקור את הכל, שנאמר: "ארמי אובד אבי וירד מצרימה ויגר שם"
Go and learn what Lavan the Aramean wanted to do to our father Yaakov. For Pharoah had issued a decree only against the males, but Lavan wanted to uproot everyone, as it says "The Aramean sought to destroy my father; and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there.."
"My father was a wandering Aramean".
The Rashbam says the verse refers to Avraham, whereas Ibn Ezra states that the "father" was Yaakov, and explains (translation from Nechama Leibowitz's Haggadah):
The verb "oved" אובד is an intransitive verb (does not take an object). If the verse were referring to Lavan, it would read "ma'avid" מאביד or "me'abed" מאבד ... But it is more logical that the Arami is Yaakov and the verse is saying that when my father was in Aram, he was poor.The question then remains, why did the Haggadah (and others) feel the need to explain the verse contrary to its plain meaning?
Louis Finkelstein provided an interesting answer in his article The Oldest Midrash: Pre-Rabbinic Ideals and Teachings in the Passover Haggadah (see also this review of the article.) He claims that this midrash is very old, dating back to the Hellenistic rule of the Middle East, when after Alexander the Great's death, his kingdom was split up between the Seleucids in Syria and the Ptolemies in Egypt. He felt that the midrash (M) was trying to paint the Syrians (from Aram) in harsher light and soften the criticism of the Egyptians:
The daring perversion of the reading of the Scriptures can be explained only on one of two hypotheses. (A) It may have been an expression of Maccabean hostility toward Syria, which was identified with Aram. (B) It may be an effort, made while Palestine was under Egyptian suzerainty, to placate the Egyptian government, by denouncing its rival, Syria. It was particularly necessary to do this before telling the story of the Exodus, which recalled unpleasant relations between Egypt and Israel.Finkelstein's theory is rejected by Goldschmidt in his Haggadah. He disagrees with Finkelstein's overall approach for reasons I won't go into here, but he writes that both explanations of the verse were known by the Rabbis - they both appear side by side in the Sifrei. However, it is not clear to me from Goldschmidt as to why this explanation was chosen for the Haggadah.
Of the two hypotheses, the second seems to me the more plausible, for several reasons which will soon become apparent. Of these, the most important is the fact that the Septuagint, which was composed by Jews under Egyptian rule, likewise perverts the meaning of the words 'arami 'obed 'abi. Its texts render the phrase as though it read 'aram y'obed (or ye'abed) 'abi, which is forced into the sense of "My father forsook Aram." Apparently the authors of the Septuagint, like the compiler of M, hesitated to identify the ancestor of the Jews as an Aramaean. The close relationship between the Septuagint translation and the interpretation put on the phrase 'arami 'obed 'abi in M is a definite indication that the two works were composed under similar circumstances, that is in the third century B.C., and under Egyptian control.
Perhaps Tigay's more modest explanation in JPS Devarim would be accepted. He points out that the Arameans of Damascus were hostile to the Israel already in the ninth century BCE, and therefore:
This interpretation, found in the Pesah Haggadah and reflected in the Septuagint and the targums, is due, perhaps, to a disbelief that the Bible would describe one of Israel's ancestors as an Aramean.
Tigay also mentions that the phrase "arami oved" might mean "fugitive Aramean", based on Assyrian inscriptions which refer to "Arame ... munnabtu" - "fugitive Aramean". Shmuel and Zeev Safrai, in their Haggadat Chazal, quote Chaim Rabin as writing that from other ancient inscriptions the word Arami meant "merchant" - so maybe the verse meant "my father was a traveling salesman"?
Whether the root אבד means "to lose (or to be lost)" or "to destroy" has an interesting impact on our understanding of Megilat Esther as well. According to Rav David Moriah of Efrat (see this article) Rav Yaakov Medan says that when Haman presented his plan to Achashverosh, he only said that the Jews were a different people who kept their own laws, and (Esther 3:9) -
אִם-עַל-הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב, יִכָּתֵב לְאַבְּדָם
"If it pleases the king, let it be written that they be lost".
According to Medan, the verb אבד only meant to assimilate them, to remove their special rights, so they wouldn't be considered a separate people. But Haman's plan was to destroy and exterminate them (3:13) -
לְהַשְׁמִיד לַהֲרֹג וּלְאַבֵּד אֶת-כָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים
"To destroy, to kill and to 'lose' all the Jews".
This helps to explain a somewhat difficult passage in the story. When Esther pleads for the lives of the Jews before the king and Haman, she says (7:4) -
כִּי נִמְכַּרְנוּ אֲנִי וְעַמִּי, לְהַשְׁמִיד לַהֲרוֹג וּלְאַבֵּד; וְאִלּוּ לַעֲבָדִים וְלִשְׁפָחוֹת נִמְכַּרְנוּ, הֶחֱרַשְׁתִּי
"For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred and 'lost'. Had we only been sold as slaves, I would have kept silent"
In other words, had Haman's plan, as presented to the king, been carried out, she wouldn't have protested. But she could not remain silent when her people were to be killed!
And here, the king replies (7:5) -
For the king had no idea of Haman's real plan. However, if we were to think that אבד meant "to kill" - then the king comes off as a real fool, for he was the one that made the agreement with Haman. But a proper understanding of אבד helps us understand the entire story.
מִי הוּא זֶה וְאֵי-זֶה הוּא, אֲשֶׁר-מְלָאוֹ לִבּוֹ לַעֲשׂוֹת כֵּן.
"Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?"