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

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


On the authority of Abu Hurayra, who said that the Messenger of God, [Peace and Blessings be upon Him] said: God [Glorified and Exalted be He] said: “I am so self-sufficient that I am in no need of having an associate. Thus he who does an action for someone else’s sake as well as Mine, will have that action renounced by Me to him whom he associated with Me.”
(Muslim, from: Forty Hadith Qudsi)
This Hadith reminds me that the foundation for actions in Islam lies in pure and sincere intentions to please God. It applies to everything a Muslim says, does, hides or reveals.  When actions are performed for the sake of pleasing God they become acts of worship.  Daily chores such as cooking and cleaning, which are sometimes perceived as burdens, are now turned into honorable acts, because they are done with a higher goal in mind. Of course, performing an action without reaching the highest level of sincerity is still considered beneficial and good.  On the other hand, when Muslims give charity and volunteer their time for the sake of impressing others with their generosity and gaining higher status, these actions—which appear on the surface to be honorable—may not be accepted by God. This Hadith illustrates the praiseworthiness of renouncing worldly reward and gratification while maintaining pure intentions and acting with the utmost sincerity.

Yasmina, I know I will want to continue this conversation beyond the scope of our online post! I believe our faiths reach a similar conclusion through different ways of seeing. Christian faith teaches that Almighty God does not need an associate, but that through God’s great love for all humanity, God has chosen not to set himself apart but to come among us, to claim each of us as beloved children, and to show us The Way.  Thus, we are taught to glorify God by remaining in intimate association with God; we seek to recognize, affirm, and humbly serve “God incarnate” in all persons.  Like the Hadith you cite, Christian scriptures emphasize the need to do and give generously, not for the world’s approval, but with sincere intent to serve God, in humble gratitude to God for the gift of God’s very self to us.

I am intrigued by your choice of this Hadith, Yasmina, and struck by the way this teaching balances philosophy and practice.  Jews similarly believe that God is completely self-sufficient and needs no associate. Many regard this to be the founding principle of Judaism, and refer to the essence of the Jewish religion as “ethical monotheism.”  However, since the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the rabbis emphasized action over faith and established the mitzvot (commandments) as the primary vehicle for religious observance.  Recognizing that only behavior or actions can be legislated, they refined the system of Halakhah (Jewish law) to make the practice of Judaism accessible, and seldom focused on belief as the reason underlying one’s actions. The rabbis went so far as to suggest that it was better to do a mitzvah for the “wrong” reason than to forgo its observance, because they believed that through the performance of the deed itself the proper intention or belief would eventually follow.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

After the Anger, Regret

“Some time afterward, when the anger of King Ahashverosh subsided, he thought of Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her.”
(Esther 2:1)
Every year as I prepare for the holiday of Purim and the public reading of the Book of Esther, I am struck by the opening lines of the second chapter. In a fit of rage—because the queen would not appear when summoned—the king issues an edict to remove her permanently from the palace. The next morning, the king is feeling sobered and bereft at the queen’s expulsion. The remainder of the story provides lessons about courage, personal integrity and individual responsibility to one’s community, but I find the most important lesson in the first three words of this verse: a person who acts impulsively, out of anger, comes to regret his behavior “some time afterward.” The damage we cause through our irrationality and inability to control our impulses cannot always be undone.  For this reason, the rabbis suggested that an ideal disposition is “difficult to anger and easy to calm.” (Mishnah Avot 5:11)

Tziporah, I could not agree with you more. I have personally fallen into the trap of spontaneous anger numerous times and regretted my feelings shortly after. As you might imagine, there are many Hadiths that provide practical advice about how to deal with and control anger. They all exalt the virtues of patience, kindness, and forgiveness.  One in particular is identical to your quote from the Mishnah; another notes that a burst of anger can negate the positive effects of a person’s fast.  I find the strongest encouragement to those who practice restraint of their anger in the following verse: “Be quick in the race for forgiveness from your Lord and for a Garden whose width is that of the heavens and of the earth, prepared for the righteous, those who spend freely whether in prosperity or in adversity; who restrain anger and pardon all men; for God loves those who do good.” (Al-i-Imram 3:133-134)

I must echo what both of you say about anger and the need for self-control.  A passage in Christian scripture that I find instructive is “Be angry, but do not sin: let not the sun go down on your wrath.” (Ephesians 4:26) This verse seems to acknowledge that anger as an emotion alone is not sinful, but that rash actions stemming from anger can be sinful indeed.  The quotation continues with the admonition to put away all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking, and “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.” (Eph 4: 32)  As is true of so many dictums in each of the holy texts we are citing, these words are much easier to say than to practice!