To be Jewish is to ask questions. Our Talmud, by insisting we question, allows us to doubt. As Jews celebrate Passover with the Seder meal where traditionally the youngest person at the table asks four questions; or as I think of it, one question with four examples: What does it mean to be Jewish?
As we read the Haggadah — the book which guides the ritual meal that traces the Israelites’ delivery from bondage in Egypt — our children ask questions as a way of understanding the story of the Exodus and their place among the Jewish people. As we ask, we participate in the telling of our own story and reeducate ourselves on our origins and purpose. To disengage from this telling, the Magid as it is called in Hebrew, is to declare apathy, and is the most treasonous act a Jew can commit. To learn more, to challenge yourself to think more deeply, is one of the central tenets of the Jewish religion.
In the telling of the Passover story, we also attempt to discern an answer to what is among the most profound questions we can pose: How does one live a meaningful Jewish life? When we share the texts of our people, such as the Exodus story, we are learning values and seeing examples of what it means to live a Jewish life. Through Jewish education, we learn how to apply those ancient writings to today’s complex world.
We may be reading about plagues, bondage and the parting of seas, but what we examine are the moral values that lie at the core of the Jewish enterprise—an enterprise today that is more complex than ever. If that’s true today, imagine how Moses must have felt when he led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt during biblical times.
The Haggadah does not mention Moses. This is largely due to rabbinic editorial decisions to give credit to miracles performed by God, rather than the man who worked on his behalf. While many debate the theological aspects of Moses, I’m more focused on what his trials and tribulations as a leader say about the Jewish people. Why is leading the Jewish people such a difficult business? Who answers the call for such a challenge? Is it a quality that someone is born with or is it formed?
Moses being left out of the Haggadah is almost as ironic as the fact that he was not allowed to enter the homeland he led the slaves towards after 40 years of wandering through the desert. I often wonder how a man who is arguably the most powerful leader in Jewish history would feel to find his name left out of the story we tell around our tables. Angry? Sad? Perhaps he’d even be relieved to no longer have to carry the burden of the narrative. Moses led the Jewish people a long time. I’m sure at some point he was just tired.
Moses has always fascinated me. The son of slaves who was hidden in a basket in the reeds, found by Pharaoh’s daughter, he was raised as an Egyptian royal. His first act of leadership was when he intervened on behalf of a slave being beaten by his master. He knew what he was seeing was wrong, and he took action because he knew it was the right things to do. Although he was a prince, he saw himself in the oppressed and went about avenging their abuse.