In the annals of American history, Harriet Tubman looms large. She was born into slavery and suffered beatings and injuries at the hands of white oppressors. In 1849, Harriet escaped and made her way North to freedom. She quickly returned South and helped guide to freedom her family and seventy other slaves. She founded the Underground Railroad of safe houses for escaping slaves. She helped John Brown recruit others for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. During the Civil War, she worked as a Union spy – helping guide one military raid that freed over seven hundred slaves. After the war, Tubman was active in the women’s suffrage movement. William Lloyd Garrison, a leading abolitionist of the time, gave her a nickname that stuck. He called her “Moses”. Like that great Prophet, Harriet Tubman was an activist who not only promoted freedom, she risked her life to achieve it for others.
In my series “Dancing with the Prophets”, two of the prophets I’be discussed, Jesus and Mohammad, are proven historical figures. While some of the claims about what they did, like various miracles, are not proven history, both men were real people. But the prophet we’ll consider today, Moses, is an unproven figure. There exist no non-Biblical accounts of his life. Moses and The Passover accounts in the Old Testament are, therefore, not literal history but, instead, allegorical stories intended to inspire.
Even so, Moses has come to represent any person, like Harriet Tubman, who fights for freedom against forces of oppression. His character was a patron saint to millions of African slaves, and modern commentators see Moses as similar to more recent freedom fighters like George Washington. He is an inspiring but fictitious Prophet – a religious, political and military character who fought for freedom.
I spoke three weeks ago on Easter how Jesus represents the importance of personal and public renewal. Last week we considered how the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, represents values of peace and non-violence. Today we’ll look at how Moses is a Jewish prophet who represents freedom. And the Passover holiday, which begins this coming Friday, celebrates freedom and its many meanings.
For those who struggle with negative attitudes or inner flaws, Moses is a symbol of change and redemption. To people who suffer discrimination due to racism, religion, poverty, sexism or homophobia, Moses is a symbol for justice. It’s in these ways that Moses and Passover honor hard won freedoms of the past and those that still must be won.
The important lesson of Passover is how the story of Moses applies to us. What negative forces within ourselves work to enslave us? Are we angry, fearful, haughty, addicted, depressed, unconfident, or unexamined people in need of freedom from those issues? Is our culture, nation or world a violent and hateful place for refugees, blacks, Muslims, women, gays, or the poor? Is a modern day Moses needed for them? If so, is it we who are called to be Moses figures who fight for personal or social liberation?
The beauty of Passover and its Seder celebration meals are in how they call people to remember, learn and ask questions. The joy of gathering with friends and family to share a Seder meal on Passover is given added purpose by symbolic rituals and foods. Each Seder food item, the egg, the bitter herb, the lamb, the matzah, the sweet apple mixture, and the wine have meaning and are intended to be consumed thoughtfully and in reflection. During a Seder, one does not simply eat good food and think good thoughts – as one might do at Thanksgiving. Instead, Seders are a combination worship service, celebration meal, history lesson, prayer time, social justice reminder and call to action.
During this message, I’ll guide us in celebrating and eating three foods that represent some of the freedoms the character Moses inspires. The word ‘Seder’ means order. A full length Seder, or ordered meal, will be offered here by MJ Pierson this Friday evening and I encourage anyone who has not participated in a Seder meal to sign up with her to reserve your place.
I’ve placed on our Chalice table a typical Seder plate – similar to one that will adorn thousands of Passover tables this Friday. On it is an egg symbolizing new life, a Spring vegetable symbolizing hope, a lamb bone symbolizing sacrifice needed to realize freedom, a bitter herb symbolizing the pain of injustice, an orange symbolizing human equality and, last but not least, matzah bread symbolizing the blessings of life. Also on the table is a cup of red wine symbolizing forgiveness.
As most of you know, Passover celebrates the events of the Exodus Bible story. It is common at every Seder meal to recount the allegorical story.
It describes how Moses, acting as leader of Jewish slaves, asked Egypt’s Pharaoh to let his people go and allow them to return to their homeland. Pharaoh refused. Using power granted him by God,
Moses increased pressure on Pharaoh by causing ten plagues – from an infestation of locusts, to the death of cattle, to turning the Nile River into blood, to finally causing the death of all first born sons. But for that tenth and worst plague, God gave the Jews an escape by telling them to paint their doorposts with blood from a sacrificial lamb so that the Angel of death will pass over, and not kill, Jewish boys.
Once it was realized many Egyptian boys were killed, Pharaoh relented and allowed Jews to leave. Moses told his people to hurry and bring with them needed bread. Because of the rush, they could not give the bread dough time to rise and were forced, instead, to bake it unleavened and without yeast – exactly the same as modern matzah.
So the Jews fled, Pharaoh and his army pursued them to the Red Sea where Moses commanded the ocean to separate and provide a dry escape. He used the same power to cause the ocean to drown pursuing Egyptians.
Once they were saved, the Jews forgot all of God’s miracles. The story says they began to grumble and complain – better to be a slave and eat well than be free and live poorly, they said. Even though Moses and God hoped the Jews would unite as a pious people, they did not. They rebelled against God’s rules – the Ten Commandments. They returned to a lifestyle of wine and partying instead of piety and obedience. They began to worship multiple God’s including a gold statue of a calf. Even Moses acted contrary to one of God’s commands. As punishment, both he and the Jews were ordered by God to wander in the desert for forty years. Only a new and more pious generation could enter Israel.
Later, from a mountain overlooking Palestine, Moses peered into the land of milk and honey – one he would never visit. He died the next day and soon, his successor Joshua, led Jews into their new land.
Annually remembering this Passover story is a command written into the Jewish Torah. Today, even liberal and Reform Jews honor that command. The holiday symbolizes the historic Jewish ability to survive countless challenges and tragedies. Significantly, the story has meaning for us too.
Just as Jesus and Muhammad taught universal lessons for all people, so too does the fictional Moses. One lesson is embodied in the Seder meal consumption of what is called a Hillel sandwich – named after a famous rabbi. Combined on a piece of matzah are two of the symbolic foods found on a Seder plate – a bitter herb or horseradish called maror, and a sweet mixture of apples, raisons and nuts called charoset. We will soon sample these elements.
The maror or bitter herb symbolizes the heartache of bondage and slavery. Jews on Passover consume maror to remember not only their past slavery, but also the pain of other past oppressions – especially the Holocaust.
On a personal level, Seder participants are asked to remember, when eating the bitter herb, the forms of bondage in their own lives. What ways might one be enslaved by a personal flaw like anger, lack of forgiveness, fear, depression, addiction, greed, or prejudice? Passover calls people to free themselves from any personal negativity. Eating a symbolic food representing the pain of bondage – a bitter herb – is one way to do that.
The charoset, or apple mixture, is intended to symbolize sweetness of life and freedom. By escaping Egyptian bondage, Jews were set free. There was joy in that and so Jews commemorate it by eating sweet food the ancients might have consumed. In doing so, they celebrate ancient freedoms but also ones they might individually have won – freedom from bitterness or freedom from fear as two examples.
Complementing the maror and the charoset, is the matzah bread. Matzah plays a central role in Seder meals for it represents all that is good in life. Whatever one believes God to be……she, he, or it – is a force of love. That force of love grants us food for nourishment, life to enjoy, companions for support, minds to think, and all of nature in which to enjoy and be inspired. Matzah represents all good things that God provided the ancient Jews and all the blessings we now enjoy.
Like the Jews in the Exodus story, we can take for granted our blessings. Bread has always symbolized life and goodness. Placing bitter herbs and a sweet apple mix on matzah bread is a way to understand and remember the contradictions of life. It’s filled with pain but, ultimately, it’s to be enjoyed and valued. Love, family, friends, food, wine and our very existence are not to be taken for granted. Seder meals remind participants to be grateful for all they have and Matzah is a symbol for that.
To finish my message, I want us take a few moments to actually engage in a brief Seder moment of reflection, prayer and food. Debbie and Bill Palmisano, our Seder meal attendants, will pass around trays of matzah pieces spread with horseradish and apple mix. As Michael plays soft background music, please take a napkin and a piece of matzah spread with horseradish and apple mix. Please hold it until all are served.
Let us use this time to eat and reflect on the symbolic meaning of the food we hold………in doing so, may we celebrate an early Passover, may we show unity with the spirit of Jews and all others who have suffered oppression………….As you now eat, taste the bitterness of the horseradish and remember some of the past challenges in your life – how you have endured and overcome……a health issue, a relationship breakup, the death of a loved one, an addiction, an attitude problem, racism, sexism, homophobia or anger directed your way……Remember also the pains of our world – hunger, poverty, violence, disease. Allow the hurt of suffering around the world to fill you with sorrow.
But with the bitterness of horseradish, you also taste the sweetness of apples and raisons. Use that taste to fill you with hope…….Despite the pains of life, we can still find goodness in our midst…….the hope of kindness extended by others……the love we feel from family…..the examples of charity and service we see in this congregation and in many others……the promise that from every negative experience something good will result…..and the resolve we can feel to do something about the challenges in ourselves and the world.
The Jewish Torah says that bad things in life are caused by negativity in us or in others. But God, the Torah says, intends for all bad things to ultimately be turned to good……..There is a dawn for every nighttime…………a life in every death……….a hope in every defeat……..a Spring for every winter.
That’s the purpose of mixing bitter with sweet in Seder food. The joy described in the Passover story when Jews were set free can be remembered in eating this food. But each of us also have stories of overcoming, in the past or present, for which Passover and the food we’ve consumed can represent new hope, new life, new freedom.
What we know here is that our spirituality is not a trivial exercise. To examine our minds and our hearts, to ponder the great questions of life, to seek after a power greater than ourselves – these are essential tasks for everyone. By celebrating the Passover, Jews and non-Jews alike undertake a spiritual exercise that reminds us to always be grateful, always humble, always aware of personal challenges to overcome………….and always ready to act and speak in the cause of justice and freedom.
I wish all of you much peace and joy…
To close our brief Seder experience, I’ve asked Mel Levrant to recite for us, in Hebrew and English, two Jewish prayers of blessing. I’ve also asked Mel to share with us his own thoughts about Seder meals and their meaning…