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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

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The Irony of Passover: Affirming Revolution, Fearing the Revolutionary

Posted: 04/18/11 07:13 PM ET

On Monday evening (April 18), Jews around the world gathered in their homes for a Passover seder to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The story that emerges from the traditional liturgy is a stunning and radical tale of revolution. It focuses not on personal salvation but on collective redemption. And the hero of the story is none other than the God of Israel. God intervenes actively in human affairs, instigates the revolution, demands freedom for the slaves and does not hesitate to use force in order to promote the common good. The freedom that God cares most about is the freedom to worship and serve God, but justice and fairness for all are also part of God's plan.

The story does not, however, make mention of Moses.

The reason is that the rabbis who created the liturgy wanted the emphasis to be on God's sovereignty -- and on God's sovereignty alone. The phenomenon of a freedom-demanding God was at the heart of Jewish theology and changed the face of religious and political thought for all time -- and the rabbis knew that it must not be compromised in any way. In addition, the desire of rabbinical authorities to avoid the creation of a Moses cult that would confer on Moses a god-like status is evident as well, although the excision here seems shocking and extreme. Does it make sense to tell the story of Israel's redemption in every Jewish home without reference to the story's central human actor?

The reason for their actions is that the rabbis understood the extraordinary appeal of Moses -- prophet, law-giver, interlocutor with God, and, even more important, daring, sensitive and sympathetic human being. The fears of the rabbis were justified; the idea of a free God seeking freedom for a people might easily have been overshadowed by the heroism, courage and down-to-earth accessibility of a very human Moses, even if the latter was simply acting on God's command.

Let us remember the first time we come across Moses as an adult. Walking among the people, he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew (Exodus 2:11) and strikes the Egyptian down. This event, offered by the Biblical text without explanation, establishes for all time that God is not on the side of the established power. Before it happened, innumerable slaves had been beaten by innumerable masters, and no one had taken notice. But Moses had seen and experienced what no one else had seen or experienced: the misery of the slave, the anger of God, the rejection of fatalistic acceptance of the world as it is. Without thinking, Moses was overcome by passion for justice and change, and in no more than a few seconds, he changed the world.

And let us remember too the words of Numbers 12:3: "Now Moses was a very humble man." We are not surprised by these words. True, Moses had spoken to God face to face, argued with God about the fate of the Israelites, confronted the most powerful ruler on earth and governed a difficult, contentious people. But his self-effacing nature and fundamental modesty were never in doubt. Tell me: Is there a single major leader, religious or political, anywhere in the world today, who can truly be said to be "a very humble man"?

And so the rabbis were right to be cautious: if they wanted Passover to be about the glory of God, it was best to leave Moses out. Moses was, after all, no more than a vehicle of the Divine will. But the character of Moses lingers over the Passover story and over the holiday itself. I have no doubt that the rabbis knew this would be the case, and given the greatness of Moses, it is right and proper that it should be so.