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Passover is the national holiday of my in-laws. Every spring, my mother-in-law hosts 35 people on one night, and a different 35 people the second night for a ritualized retelling of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt.
But the centrality of this occasion also creates problems for me. Before attending my first Rottenberg Passover, I warned my new family that I would make the world’s most insufferable seder guest. I had just returned from a year-long journey for my book Walking the Bible in which I actually crossed the likely Red Sea, tasted manna, and climbed the leading candidate for Mount Sinai. This year, I am coming off a journey across the United States for my book America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story looking at the role of Moses as an influence on everything from the U.S. seal to Superman.
In the liturgical list of the Four Sons, I will surely be the Pedantic One.
“No problem!” my mother-in-law, Debbie, said. “Would you say a few words?”
And just like that I will be a pedantic with a microphone.
But why hog all the fun! You, too, can be a seder know-it-all. Herewith are selected seder talking points to help you steer your Passover conversation away from the same tired jokes about matzah and constipation.
1. A quote from Moses appears on the Liberty Bell. Moses was an American icon long before there was an America. The Pilgrims described themselves as the chosen people fleeing their pharaoh, King James. When they set sail on The Mayflower in 1620, they carried Bibles emblazoned with Moses leading the Israelites to freedom. By the time of the Revolution, the Exodus was the go-to narrative of American identity. Thomas Paine, in Common Sense, called King George the “hardened, sullen tempered pharaoh.” And in 1751, the Pennsylvania Assembly chose a quote from Moses for its State-House bell, “Proclaim Liberty thro’ all the Land to all the Inhabitants Thereof – Levit. XXV 10.”
2. The Founding Fathers proposed that Moses appear on the U.S. seal. The future Liberty Bell was hanging above the room where the Continental Congress passed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. As its last last order of business that day, the Congress formed a committee of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams to design a seal for the new United States. The committee submitted its recommendation that August: Moses, leading the Israelites across the Red Sea. Three of the five drafter of the Declaration of Independence proposed that Moses be the face of the new United States. To them, he was our real Founding Father.
3. Moses was the national hero for slaves. If the biblical prophet was a unifying presence during the Revolution, a generation later he got dragged into the issue that most divided the country. For slaves, Moses was more than a just figure in the Bible. He became a leader of their people. The story of the Israelites escape from slavery became the single greatest motif of slave spirituals, including “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army,” “I Am Bound for the Promised Land,” and the most famous spiritual,”Go Down, Moses,” which was called the National Anthem of slaves. Harriet Tubman freed so many people on the Underground Railroad she was called “The Moses of Her People.”
4. The Statue of Liberty was modeled on Moses. When Abraham Lincoln died in 1865, two-thirds of the eulogies compared him to Moses, because he had freed the slaves and, like Moses, been stopped short of the Promised Land of victory. Lincoln’s death also initiated one of the more everlasting connections to Moses in American history. Americaphiles France wanted to pay tribute to the martyred president and the American journey of freedom by building a statue of liberty. Sculptor Frederic Bartholdi chose the Roman goddess of liberty as his model, but he imported two icons from Moses to bring her to life. First, the rays of sun around her head and second, the tablet in her arms, both of which come from the moment Moses descends Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.
5. Superman was a modern-day Moses. With the rise of secularism in the 20th century, Moses might have melted away as a role model. But Moses superseded Scripture and entered the realm of popular culture, from novels to television. In 1938, two bookish Jews from Cleveland named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, drew their character’s backstory from the superhero of the Torah. Just as baby Moses is floated down the Nile in a basket to escape annihilation, baby Superman is launched into space in a rocket ship to avoid extinction. Both Moses and Superman were picked up aliens and raised in strange environments before being summoned to aid humanity. Superman’s original name was Kal-el, which is Hebrew for “swift god.”
6. Cecil B. DeMille turned Moses into a Cold War icon. The 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, which is the fifth highest grossing movie of all time, opened with DeMille appearing onscreen. “The theme of this picture is whether men ought to be ruled by God’s law or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator,” he said. “The same battle continues throughout the world today.” To drive home his point, DeMille cast mostly Americans as Israelites and Europeans as Egyptians. And in the film’s final shot, Charlton Heston adopts the pose of the Statue of Liberty and quotes the line from the third book of Moses — Leviticus — inscribed on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
7. Moses is the Patron Saint of Washington. Today, forty years after Martin Luther King compared himself to Moses on the night before his assassination, the Hebrew prophet is as resonant as ever. There are six representations of Moses on the U.S. Supreme Court, and a bas-relief of Moses stares at the podium in the House chamber where presidents give the State of the Union. George W. Bush said in an Oval Office interview that he was inspired to run for the presidency by a sermon in Texas in which his preacher said Moses was not a man of words but still led his people to freedom. Barack Obama said in 2007 that the civil rights pioneers were the “Moses generation,” he was part of the “Joshua generation” that would “find our way across the river.” And this week Obama hosts the second White House seder.
From the sandy shores of Plymouth to the marble halls of Washington, DC, Moses has been an icon of American freedom because he embodies our greatest aspirations – leading people from oppression to freedom, creating a new a Promised Land in the wilderness, and building a society that nurtures all of its people. But he also reminds us that not all of our dreams come true. As Martin Luther King said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I’ve looked over. I’ve seen the promised land. And I may not get there with you, but I want you to know that we as a people will get to the promised land.” These words capture what may be the most enduring lesson of Moses: The true destination of a journey of hope is not this year at all, but next.
Tags: America's Prophet, Barack Obama, Benjamin Franklin, Bible, Bruce Feiler, Ceciil B. DeMille, Charlton Heston, George W. Bush, Jews, Judaism, Moses, Passover, Red Sea, Seder, Statue of Liberty, Superman, The Ten Commandments, Thomas Jefferson, White House