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Why the Haggadah finds little room for Moses

The rabbis were so intent on emphasising the divine nature of the redemption from Egypt that they all but omitted Moses from the Seder narrative

    Pharaoh's army destroyed at the Crossing of the Red Sea - painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530 (Getty)
    Pharaoh's army destroyed at the Crossing of the Red Sea - painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530 (Getty)

    The Haggadah goes out of its way to stress the divine nature of the redemption from Egypt. Still, one may wonder what prompted the author of the Haggadah, when interpreting the verse “And God brought us out” (Exodus 12:12), to assert so vehemently that this implies:  “It was I, not an angel; I, not a Seraph; I, not an intermediary who brought them out.”

    Given that the Torah boldly refers to God’s employment of an angelic intermediary to go before the Israelites when they went out of Egypt (Exodus 14:19), coupled with the clear statement that “God sent an angel to bring us out of Egypt” (Numbers 20:16), it would seem that the author of that purist statement in the Haggadah was protesting too much.

    Some commentators attempt to circumvent the apparent contradiction by explaining that, although there is no denying God’s employment of intermediaries at the Exodus, the point being made in the Haggadah is that the many “signs, wonders and the plagues” inflicted on the Egyptians were all initiated and carried out exclusively by God Himself. 

    This, they assert, is underscored by the announcement of the climactic plague of the death of the firstborn: “I shall go through the land of Egypt on this night, and I shall strike every firstborn in the land of Egypt…and against all the gods of Egypt I shall mete out punishment — I am God “(12:12). It is for this reason, it is suggested,  the Haggadah cites the latter verse to make the point regarding God’s exclusive activity in the context of the plagues, while leaving the Torah’s explicit other verses to convey the notion of the employment of intermediaries in the execution of the Exodus.  

    There is, however, another way of explaining the Haggadah’s overemphasis on God’s exclusive involvement. And that is in the context of the wider polemical battles that Phrarisaic-Talmudic Judaism waged against several sects, such as Sadducees, Persian dualists and Christians, that were perceived as challenging Judaism’s theological axioms in the early centuries of the Common Era. 

    The Talmudists were not concerned with waging a head-on, public and vituperative attack on their heretical views. Their objective was rather to educate and preserve the faith of their own co-religionists by highlighting and subtly over-emphasising the validity of their own theological principles, rituals and liturgy, with the implicit rejection of any concepts that conflicted with theirs. 

    Thus, to rebut the Sadducean rejection of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, the sages inserted a succession of allusions to it in the second blessing of the weekday Amidah. Again, the Christian insistence that the Ten Commandments alone possessed the sanctity of having been given directly by God — with the rest of the Torah mediated by man and validly superseded by Christianity’s new dispensation — was gently countered by their removal of it from the daily worship. By doing so, the sages made their point that it was no more sacred than the rest of the Pentateuch. 

    The introduction of a special blessing over the ritual of lighting Sabbath lights was another polemical gesture to rebut the Karaite (eighth- century) belief that it was forbidden to have fire burning on the Sabbath.

    Now, the Haggadah’s exaggerated assertion that God employed no “angel, Seraph or intermediary” may also have been a conscious piece of polemic, this time against the preoccupation with angelology that had already evolved in the early Pharisaic period (3rd century BCE). In the late biblical books of Zechariah and Daniel and, in more developed form in the post-biblical books of the Apocrypha, angels appear as independent beings, with their own personal names and distinguishable traits. 

    Such a developed system of angelology underpinned the apocalyptic vision of Jewish sects such as the Qumran Covenanters; the Greek influence is unmistakable, though the former purged the notion of all its idolatrous elements, ensuring that the ultimate authority of God was sustained. 

    Now, the popular obsession with such ideas would well have alarmed the Orthodox Pharisaic authorities of the period, struggling hard to promote pure monotheism among the uneducated masses for whom such angelic intermediaries were becoming a powerful influence in their lives. Seder night would have been an occasion not to be missed, therefore, in the mainstream fight against such sectarian ideas. And hence the inclusion of the “I, not an angel…” midrash in the Haggadah.  

    The almost total absence of reference to Moses in the Haggadah may be similarly explained, given it attained its final editorial form in the early Geonic period (eighth century CE). The editors would  have been zealous about distancing their unsophisticated readers from the dominant Christian and Islamic theologies, both of which viewed their respective faiths as having been mediated through a heaven-sent malach, Jesus or Mohammed.

    The Haggadah employed, therefore, two means of emphasising the absolute purity of Judaism’s monotheism: the first was to overemphasise the fact that God did not have recourse to any intermediary; the second was to suppress the name of Moses — described in the Torah as “the man of God” — and any reference to his role as an intermediary in the Exodus.    

    Rabbi Cohen is the author of 1001 Questions and Answers on Pesach

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