Getting organized, with Moses leading from the back
This holiday season, Jews across the globe will gather together for Passover to eat, share stories and retell the tale of the Exodus. The Passover seder is the most celebrated Jewish event all year long — even avowedly secular and disaffected Jews will try to find a place at the table.
There is something about this story, the liberation of the Israelites, that is restless in the heart. It carries no expiration date; it refuses to be a forgotten tale.
One of the most subversive motifs of the traditional haggadah is, believe it or not, the absence of Moses. (Didn’t notice? Take a closer look this year.) The rabbis played down his significance in order to tamp down the urge to messianism that can emerge in heroic narratives.
Moses is in many ways the messiah-warrior. He works miracles, knows God “face-to-face” and is apocalyptic in his rhetoric. Moses is the very paradigm of what the sociologist Max Weber calls the “charismatic leader” whose power destabilizes societal structures and upends cultural norms.
Yet, there is another side to Moses, one that is equally revolutionary and powerful, yet decentralized from the core narrative of the Passover story. Moses was a prophet, true, but perhaps more importantly, he was an advocate for justice, an effective community organizer.
Here is a man who was neither the firstborn nor the secondborn of his family. He was part of a family of Israelite slaves who were contented to be what their parents and their grandparents were: slaves who knew nothing but a system of oppression that tries to destroy their identity. As the abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass writes, “[T]o make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one … [the slave] must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceased to be a man.” In fact, when we meet Moses, it is through his father and mother, neither of whom have a name and who give no name to their child, thus perpetuating the internalized oppression of being a slave (Exodus 2:1-2).
Moses is in many ways the messiah-warrior. He works miracles, knows God “face-to-face” and is apocalyptic in his rhetoric.
Moses the Jew, the oppressed, grows up in the house of the oppressor, Pharaoh. It is in this space between worlds that he begins to feel the internal conflict that all changemakers feel. As he matures, so does the pain in his heart. His eyes are opened and he sees the tension of his dual identity grow until that fateful day when the Egyptian taskmaster beats the Israelite slave. Moses wakes up from the stupor of his youth and affirms for himself, years before he meets God, that the world as it is is wrong and unjust. He opens his eyes to see his conflict of identity, and into the breach he jumps.
Except he fails.
Moses saved the single Israelite slave from death, but his justified killing of the oppressor did nothing to change the political environment. One act of righteous vengeance does not bring about justice for all. Everyone needs to be brought along. They need to be organized.
Social change comes not from a single catalytic act but from the groundswell power that follows it. Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus did not on its own change the lives of African-Americans. Justice was born out for her and others because she was a strategic leader in an organized movement that included a bus boycott, church sermons and marches across the country. Likewise, Ghandi’s self-inflicted protest of starvation did not give liberation to Indians, yet his act of sacrifice worked because of the planful resistance that he and hundreds of others organized to unleash the will of billions of lives who wanted independence.
Societies need symbols in the form of statues, logos and people. However, to be a symbol is to be an idol, and our God brooks no idol worship. Our God needs organizers who know they can’t change the world alone, and Moses learned that.
Moses, like Parks and Ghandi, is not the center of the liberation story. The people woke up to their oppression and cried out to God long before Moses returned to Egypt (Exodus 2:23). When Moses does come back, he removes himself from the center of the story as quickly as possible. It is Aaron, not Moses, who is the actual spokesman for the people. Aaron and Moses assemble the elders. Moses and Aaron carry the relationships with the leaders of the Israelites.
It was the leaders who helped to organize the slaves to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. It was through organizing that the “Children of Israel” are finally able to call themselves the “Nation of Israel” (Exodus 5:1). It was through organizing that the oppressed masses saw a different way of being, resisted tyranny and found their identity not simply as a family but as a body politic with rights, and they demanded those rights. Only then — after the groaning, the planning and organizing — did Moses and Aaron dare confront the oppressor Pharaoh in his own home and bring about redemption.
It is easy to see Moses as a messiah. It’s inspiring to romanticize the Exodus with its fantasia of miracles and powerful speeches. But the rabbis were right to take Moses out of the haggadah. For the true and enduring story of the Passover — the part that inspires millions worldwide to see themselves in this story — is in the ability of a once no-name slave to make it not about him, but about a sacred cause.
The greatest teaching of the Passover seder is the eternal wisdom that the narrowness of Egypt was not just then, but now. Oppression was not just then, but now. Liberation did not end then, but must be worked out in every generation, including our own.
Moses is not mentioned in the haggadah for good reason. He is only a man called to his people to organize them in the face of uncertainty. To wager life and limb for a better tomorrow. It is his style of leadership, to put others first and lead like a shepherd — from the back — that has inspired social revolutions for millennia.
For when leaders pull back from prophecy and push the pain of the oppressed into the public sphere in order to organize an entire nation for social change, it is then that, as the poet Seamus Heaney writes: “Justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme.”
RABBI NOAH ZVI FARKAS is a clergy member at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino; founder of Netiya, a nonprofit that promotes urban agriculture through a network of interfaith partners; and the author of “The Social Action Manual: Six Steps to Repairing the World” (Behrman House).