Parashat Tsav

Moses’ Absence This Monday night is the beginning of Passover. Around the world millions of Jews will be sitting down with friends and family to the Passover Seder.  Attending a Passover Seder is probably the one Jewish ritual that almost all Jewish people fulfill every year. They may not come to synagogue, they may not observe the Sabbath, they may not keep Jewish dietary rules, but they will attend a Passover Seder and will eat matzah on Passover.  We are also commanded to tell the story of Passover to our children at the Seder and to engage in certain rituals which help us to remember the exodus from Egypt. Yet we have a very unusual way of telling the story of Passover.  If you were to tell the story of the American Revolution to your children, could you omit the name of George Washington? Could you tell the story of the American Civil War without mentioning the name of Abraham Lincoln? Of course not! Yet, in the book that we use to tell the story of Passover, the Hagaddah, the name of the central figure in that story, Moses, is never mentioned!  Why do we tell this story and yet leave out the main person without whom the story could not have happened? The traditional answer that we give to that question is that it was not Moses who brought us out of Egypt, it was G-d.  G-d gets all the credit for liberating the Jewish people in the re-telling of the story.  Moses is merely an instrument of G-d, and in order not to confuse things, in order not to mistake Moses for a god, we omit his name completely. This evening I want to offer a different reason why Moses’ name is left out of the Seder.  This reason was suggested by Rabbi Michael Balinsky, Executive Director of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, in a Torah study he led recently. Before I go on, however, I have to issue a warning. We Jews do not look upon even our holiest of men and women as perfect. Only G-d is perfect. Everybody else, even Moses, has flaws, and often these flaws are serious ones.  In our studies we do not shy away from looking at them, and understanding them.  One of Moses’ greatest flaws is one reason, perhaps, why he is not mentioned in the Hagaddah.  Those of you who know your Bible will remember a strange incident in Moses’ life.  Moses is returning to Egypt from Midian with Tsiporra, his wife, and his two sons.  G-d strikes one of the sons and seeks to kill him. Tsipporah, Moses’ wife, takes a flint and circumcises one of the sons.  He recovers. This story raises many questions. It has been a father’s obligation to circumcise his sons at the age of eight days from the time of Abraham. Why did Moses neglect to circumcise his son at the proper time? Why did he leave it to his wife, Tsippora, to circumcise his son at this time of danger?  Should he not have done it himself? After this incident on the way back to Egypt, we do not hear anything more about Moses’ family.  Throughout his negotiations with Pharaoh, throughout the ten plagues, throughout the parting of the Red Sea, the Bible tells us nothing about Moses’ wife and two sons.  In fact, the next mention of them comes after the Israelites have crossed the Red Sea and have left Egypt behind.  The Bible tells us that Jethro, Moses’ father in law, heard all that G-d had done for the Israelites and brought “Zipporah, the wife of Moses, after she had been sent away, and her two sons” to visit Moses. More questions!  “After she had been sent away?” When did Moses send her away? The text never mentions this. What does it mean that Moses sent his wife away? And why does the Torah describe the children as “her two sons”. Are they not also Moses’ sons? Should not the text have said that Jethro, Moses’ father in law, brought “their two sons?”     Here is the shocker. Here is what the Torah never tells us. Here is where we have an oral tradition that fills in the blanks at what the Torah only hints at. When the Torah says that Moses “sent his wife away” our oral tradition tells us what the text of the Torah omits. It is that he actually divorced her. That is what “sent away” really means.  When the Torah speaks of the children being “her two sons” it is because it was the mother, Zipporah, who brought them up. Alone. Now we can understand why Moses did not circumcise his son at the proper time. Why his wife did it instead of him. Moses is not the greatest father in the world. He leaves everything having to do with the children up to his wife. Even the obligations of a father to a son, he leaves to her. That is why the Torah calls the boys “her two sons”. Moses had very little to do with their upbringing after he divorced his wife. Later on, Zipporah herself confirms this. Again, we must turn to our oral tradition. The Torah text relates that two men, Eldad and Meldad, are prophesying in the Israelite camp. Joshua is concerned about these prophets undermining Moses’ authority. “My lord, Moses, incarcerate them,” suggests Joshua in alarm. Moses is not threatened. That is part of his greatness. “Would that the entire people could be prophets,” Moses replies. Where is Zipporah, Moses’ wife, during all this? The oral tradition tells us that Zipporah is standing next to Miriam, Moses’ sister.  Zipporah whispers to Miriam, “Woe to their wives if they are required to prophesy, for they will separate from their wives just as my husband separated from me.” Moses was a great man. In our tradition, he is the greatest prophet who ever lived. Yet we are not blind to his flaws. He was not a good husband. He was not a good father. This great leader of a nation was not a family man. Yet what is the Passover Seder if not a time for families?  It is a time when parents are to teach their children around a sacred meal. Should a man who was himself never home for dinner be part of such important family time?  Moses is not the model that we want for a husband or father on this family centered holiday. Therefore, he is not mentioned this night when we gather with our families to retell our most important story. There is a different prophet who becomes an important part of our Seder. At each Seder table around the world on Monday night there will be a cup of wine set apart for Elijah the Prophet. Of Elijah the prophet it is written that “he will restore the heart of fathers to their children and the heart of children to their fathers.” This is the ideal of the Jewish family and of families everywhere — that parents and children will be reconciled and turn toward each other with love and respect; that parents will not only teach their children, but that children will also teach their parents; that this take place not only on Passover night with Jewish families but on all nights for all families for all of people throughout the world. Elijah the Prophet – the one who will bring reconciliation to parents and children – he is the one who is most welcome to join us for our Passover meal. Shabbat Shalom and A Zissen Pesach