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Pesach 8 5782     April 23, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach

     Today is a good day to have a conversation about Moses.

     From the very beginning of the book of Exodus to the very end of Deuteronomy, there is no single person who is as critical for the story of our people as Moses. The Torah records his birth and how he came to the palace of Pharoah. The Torah notes how he had to flee for his life from Egypt and how he found peace and raised his family in his quiet refuge with the Midianites. The Torah records God’s call to Moses at the burning bush, and Moses’ return to Egypt to speak up on behalf of the Israelites. There is the moment of high drama as Moses holds his staff over the sea and has it part to rescue the Israelites. The Torah records the relationship that Moses had with God and the difficult relationship Moses has with the people he is leading. There is a good reason that despite no mention of Moses in Genesis, we still call the Torah the “Five Books of Moses.”

     What makes all of this so strange is the fact that while Moses has a big part to play in the story of the Exodus, in our Haggadah where we retell the story of the Exodus in every generation, we do not mention the name of Moses at all. We have a God who redeems and a people worthy of redemption but no mention of Moses, the agent who makes it all happen. The Haggadah cuts out the middleman and never breathes the name of the great redeemer. The Haggadah has made a choice and it has chosen God over the role of Moses.

      Who is this Moses? What do we really know about the man and his mission? As usual, the Torah is not helpful in teaching about Moses’ younger years. In the first chapter of Exodus, we record the severity of the slavery and the birth of Moses. It will be many chapters later until Moses’ parents will be identified. He is born into slavery, but to avoid the edict of being drowned in the Nile along with all the other male children born to the slaves, he is placed in a basket and floated downriver. He is discovered by the daughter of Pharoah who gives Moses his name, adopts him and raises him in the palace. That is all we have about the childhood of Moses.

     When professors of Bible and literature look at this short story of Moses’ youth, they see a common thread with ancient mythology; the foundling who through an accident becomes uniquely qualified to become a leader of an oppressed people. There are several ancient mythologies with comparable stories about their heroes. Is this just another foundational myth for the hero of the Torah?

     However, Moses is not a hero that, like others, is larger than life. Moses has a serious flaw that will haunt him all of his life. Moses has, to put it delicately, an anger management problem. He kills a taskmaster in anger. He loses his temper with the Israelite people several times. Just look at his hot anger when he finds out about the Golden Calf. And yet, Moses is humble. He does some spectacular things on God’s behalf, but he never boasts or brags about it. He never reminds the people of all the good things he has done on their behalf.

     So here we have Moses, on the one hand, on a pedestal with the words, “Moshe Rabbenu” “Moses our teacher” carved in granite on the base. On the other hand, we have a Moses who cannot enter the Promised Land, having lost his temper too many times. Who is this Moses that we celebrate on this holiday for bringing our people out of slavery and teaching us the meaning of freedom?

     Moses: man, or myth, is a human being. We are all flawed and all of us have a good side and a not so good side. Nobody is perfect; not today, not four thousand years ago and not ever. It is all of us, who read this story in the Torah who have to decide what kind of a man Moses was. We are the ones who either make him larger than life or just another clueless human being. What part of Moses’ personality do we focus on when we think or speak about Moses?

     There is also the question as to why does the personality of Moses matter? He has given us God’s law. He has shown us how to live a holy and blessed life. He has given us the keys to bringing justice and compassion into our lives. What more could we want from this man? In spite of all his flaws, he accomplished wonders in Egypt and among the people of Israel. Let him be “our lawgiver;” isn’t that enough? We can focus, like the Haggadah, on God and let the questions about Moses disappear.

     There is a lesson here for us as we prepare for our Yizkor service.

     I have seen some people die under horrific challenges. And I always note that while there is great pain for the family at the moment of death, it is never the pain that is remembered. Little by little, the pain is forgotten, and the wonderful memories of a lifetime become the memories we retain. I have taken to calling our members about a week before their yahrzeit. I ask them to tell me something about the person they will remember on the anniversary of their death. With few exceptions, I hear wonderful stories of a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, or a grandparent.

     It does not take long for the memory of a loved one to become larger than life. Each time the story is told, the good memories are embellished and expanded. A shining moment becomes symbolic of a lifetime of virtuous deeds. A loving memory becomes the moment that changes the life of those who survive. I often hear people tell me that they wish they could be so good, so kind, so caring, so loving. This is not a terrible thing at all. What would be the purpose of remembering the flaws in someone’s life? Why remember the bad decisions they made when there were also good decisions? Why remember the poor choices when they made so many good choices? Why remember the arguments when they no longer matter in our lives?

     We waste too much of our lives stewing over the troubled times and the frustrations we so often feel about those we love. We say things that are hurtful and mean in our time of anger and they become the regrets when our loved one is gone. What was that old song by the Mills Brothers, “You always hurt the ones you love, the ones you shouldn’t hurt at all?” And then, because we love them, we do our best to forgive them, and we hope that they will forgive us. But the regret remains, and after death we need to let that go as well. They were not perfect, and neither are we.

     But there is a danger when we make our loved ones way too much larger than life. When we hold them up as an example of what we should be doing in our life; or when we hold them up as the example of what our children should be doing, we have created a bar that is often far too high for anyone to attain. Our loved ones had flaws, and it is also true that we ourselves carry similar flaws in our lives, having learned both the good and the bad from parents and grandparents. It is sometimes our lifelong challenge to overcome the flaws in our own lives in a way that our parents were never able to do in their lives.

      It is important to remember our loved ones at Yizkor as larger than life. It is important to remember all the lessons and advice they shared with us now that they are gone. This is the reason we cry. We look at all the blessings we have because of the way they lived, and we miss them, and when we miss them, we cry. They loved us and we loved them. Tears are the price we pay for loving someone. Yizkor is the day we pay that price. For the empty seat at the Seder table, for the empty seat next to us in shul. For all the silly things they used to do that we miss so much today. For all that love, we cry. 

     Tomorrow I will remember the times my family drove me crazy; the things I used to complain about to my daughter. She would always say to me, “Remember how you feel so you don’t repeat their mistakes and drive me crazy someday.” There are indeed lessons we can learn when we open our eyes to the flaws of the past generation. They can be the path to living our lives better. Standing on their proverbial shoulders, we can often see what they could never see. We do not have to repeat their story in our life.

     Life is extremely complicated. We can see this in the life of Moses in the Torah and in the lives of those we remember today at this service. The flaws of life are not eternal. We are not doomed to repeat them. It is not our fate to suffer the consequences of their mistakes. We can create a new chapter in our family life and thus redeem them and their reputation by facing our inherited flaws and working hard to change that pattern in our family life. The Torah teaches us to listen to the lessons of Moses, and not to mimic his anger.

     The legacy of Moses is invoked whenever we take on one more mitzvah from our Torah. The legacy of our parents and grandparents lives on when we live up to the lessons we learned at their side. Their legacy will someday be our legacy. What we learned from them we are committed to teaching to our children and our grandchildren. It is our duty to take their words and pass them along to the future generations. It is how we can keep their memory alive and how we keep our own memories from fading.

     Today we remember and tomorrow we pass on those memories. Yes, they were larger than life, but they were also human beings. They were our heroes and they set the examples that still guide our lives. Their flaws will be forgotten when we root them out of our lives. The blessings of their life will live on as we pass them down to the next generation.

     May the loved ones we remember today always be a blessing in our lives as we say….

     Amen, Shabbat Shalom, and Hag Sameach

Tue, February 7 2023 16 Shevat 5783