Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Last Prophet

“And a prophet did not rise again in Israel like Moses, whom God knew face-to-face.”
(Deuteronomy 34:10)
As I begin to prepare for the holiday of Passover, I am reminded of a tension in Jewish tradition regarding Moses. In the Torah itself, Moses is described as the last, great prophet of Israel; in the Haggadah,[1] he is never mentioned by name.  The rabbis who compiled the Haggadah added countless interpretations of the text yet consistently left Moses out, and focused solely on God’s role in the redemption of the people.  I understand their editorial choice: no doubt they were reacting to the primacy attached to leading men in other religions, namely Jesus and Moses.  Nevertheless, removing the human protagonist and leaving only an unknowable hero—to whom we offer lengthy praise both before and after the meal—the rabbis made the story less accessible to modern Jews. I am thinking about how best to add Moses’ voice to the retelling of the story at my Seder this year. I would like to imagine what Moses saw in God’s face, what Moses felt along the arduous journey from Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land. How can Moses be our role model for knowing God?

What a provocative question, Tziporah!  What would Moses’ voice tell us?  Perhaps about how God can take an impetuous, doubting, and argumentative anyone[2]—someone like us—and show him or her how to lead others who fail repeatedly to trust a God who never fails.  As our Jewish friends prepare for Passover, Christians now near the end of a 40-day Lenten journey when we remember the Exodus in our own lives, times when we too have wandered in a wilderness, afraid, confused, and prone to forget God.  In those hard and awful experiences, when we see the run-together godisnowhere, our eyes may first tell us that “God is nowhere;” until we confront God ourselves, in a burning bush or through the gentle, outstretched arm of one who will part the waters for us. Then we discover the reality that “God is now here” and that we, too, stand on holy ground.

Since the story of Moses [Peace and Blessing be upon Him] is recounted in the Quran in more detail than that of any other prophet, I am lost in a multitude of choices: patience, trust, courage, dedication and perseverance are but a few of the many honorable qualities Moses displayed to the people of his time and to us today. However, I will focus on another aspect of Moses’ character. In the Quran, God asks Moses—although He knows the answer, of course—why he hastened and left his people to head to the mountain. Moses says: “and I hastened to you, my Lord, that You be pleased.”[3] I find these words deeply touching; to me, they epitomize Moses’ contentment and happiness of sharing an intimate connection with God, as well as his deep understanding of pure intention. Moses’ eagerness to respond to God’s commands, his sincerity and his devotion are characteristics I seek to emulate.

[1] The Haggadah is a book that is used to retell the story of the Exodus at the Seder, the ritual meal held on the eve of Passover.  There are many different publications of the Haggadah; most recently, Jonathan Safran Foer edited the New American Haggadah.  Corey-Jan Albert, a contributor to She Answers Abraham, wrote a version in script format titled Diaspora Journey.
[2] Peter in Christian scriptures
[3] Ta Ha, 20:84


  1. I struggled big-time over this issue when I wrote _Diaspora Journey: A Passover Haggadah Drama._ That's because I knew that as soon as I would define a character, he is "written in stone," so to speak. And I didn't want to over hero-ize Moses who was, after all, still a man.

    At the same time, I couldn't stop imagining who Moses was. And I found myself thinking of the people I knew who tended to know more than those around them, and how, especially in a leadership position, it would be easy (some might say unavoidable) to become arrogant - if not for the other people around them.

    I don't have a complete answer to Tziporah's question, but I do think that Moses' ability to be humbled (as he is in my text) offers the moments of pause and grace that may be one essential element of knowing God.

    1. Corey-Jan, I believe your Haggadah is such an effective tool because you struggled with this issues and other issues of "character development" in your script. Your creative process mirrors that of the early rabbis who, in creating classical midrashim, "flesh out" the characters of the bible and gave them full biographies. I will make use of these midrashim, including Diaspora Journey, as I answer my questions about Moses and add him into our Seder narratives.

  2. Tziporah, Grace and Yasmina, thank you so much for this post! I have been reading this week in the Qur'an about Moses. He appears as a prophet who really understands the spiritual lives of people, and what it may take to bring people to awareness of God. It is so interesting to read the way the Qur'an develops our understanding of his work! Thank you all for showing different ways of entering into Moses' story and deepening it.

    1. Thanks for your response, Reb Laura! I love reading about Moses, especially as we get ready to retell the story of Exodus at Passover time, because he is such a HUMAN prophet. Some of my favorite "Moses moments" are when he argues with God about how do lead the people. Wishing you a sweet holiday,