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Judi's Journal 07-01-2011

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Moses and the American experience

By Judi Siegal

In a few days, we will be celebrating Independence Day. Hot dogs will sizzle on the grill, joyful laughter will prevail over countless glasses of sweet tea and flip flops and shorts will be the attire for the day and virtually nobody will be thinking about Moses. Moses? Why, that seems as incongruous as mittens in July but as we will soon see, Moses, has much to do with what we call the American Experience.

The year was 1620, immortalized as the date of the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock in what was to become the state of Massachusetts. These people likened themselves to the Israelites of the Bible for like them, they were fleeing from oppression and wanted to be free. They regarded William Bradford as their Moses, for he was leading them to the New Israel, the Promised Land, and the New World. These Bible-reading Protestants saw many similarities in their plight and that of the Israelites as they too were being led into a wilderness, leaving behind their homes and jobs in England for a land and untold danger. They drew up a document called the Mayflower Compact with which to govern themselves, just as Moses did when he came down from Mount Sinai with the Decalogue

In time, the 13 original colonies prospered and decided to take the next step, i.e. freedom from England. Like Moses of old, the Founding Fathers stood up to the King of England as the prophet did to Pharoah. The Founding Fathers, although not necessarily religious, did read the Hebrew Bible and in there was their inspiration for rebellion; the Bible negates the divine right of kings as witnessed by the Hebrew prophets who confronted the Israelite kings on moral grounds. To these Bible readers, here in sacred language was the raison d’etre for independence; it was divine will that people should be free. God had heard the suffering of the American people as he had heard the cries of the oppressed Israelites, this gave legitimacy to the American cause. At one point, it was suggested that the Great Seal of the United States depict the Israelites fleeing Pharaoh with Pharaoh being portrayed as the then king of England, George.  Though never adopted, it came close to fruition.  As more and more victories were won, it was seen as Divine Providence that this American experience was a right and moral cause and this gave the revolutionaries courage and fortitude. George Washington was also seen as a Moses as the Americans followed him into battle.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, a set of laws was needed to govern the new nation.  Just as the Israelites had the Torah for their guide, the new nation needed a covenant or set of laws or doctrine in order to live in a moral and ethical manner.  Like the Pilgrims, the new nation was to have a covenant, a federal government, the word “federal” deriving from the Latin ‘foedus”, meaning covenant. What was to emerge was a document that still guides us today, The Constitution.

James Madison, in crafting the Constitution consulted many forms of government from ancient times to the 1700s. drawing a parallel in history from the Exodus story, he realized that when the Israelites were freed, they had to give up some of their freedoms to live under a set of laws. Madison gave careful consideration to the document that was to govern the new nation and he devised a set of checks and balances with the designation of the three branches of government: legislative, judicial and executive.

Moses’ influence is also felt in the ensuing years of American history.  The history of slavery in this country and the plight of the African-Americans had plenty of examples in the Hebrew Bible.  “Go down Moses” was such powerful song, that it was banned in the South.  Harriet Tubman, a conductor on the Underground Railway, was often compared to Moses because she led her people to freedom. Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, was like Moses in that he defied the convention of day and freed the slaves.

In our own day, Martin Luther King, has been seen as a Moses in his work to gain equal rights for African-Americans. This black minister, well-versed in the Bible, often relied on its metaphors for his speeches and sermons.  Who can forget his famous “Let Freedom Ring” sermon as even today its message resonates across this land

Recently, I stood in James Madison’s Temple, a gazebo on the grounds of his home, Montpelier, in Virginia. From this vantage point, I could see the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the lush greenery of the nearby woods. I thought of the Goshen, the fertile strip of land where my ancestors lived while slaves in Egypt. I thought of the genius of the man who created a document, revered and studied, argued and promoted, old as it is new. I could not help to compare the concept to that of the Torah, a document of antiquity that continues to inspire and guide us even today, Jew and Gentile alike.

Moses, the Great Law Giver is smiling.  Happy Independence Day!

(Ideas based on the book, America’s Prophet by Bruce Feiler New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2009.)