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Jonah’s Sukkah

A text version of my sermon from first day Sukkot, 5780 –

     One of the more interesting, and at the same time less familiar traditions, of Sukkot is called Ushpizin.  Ushpizin is an Aramaic word that means guests, and the idea is that each night when you sit in your sukkah you invite a special guest to join you for dinner, traditionally a biblical figure.  As the tradition has evolved over time there is a specific guest you are supposed to invite each night – the first night is Abraham, for example.  As you might expect, Isaac and Jacob, the other patriarchs are also invited, as are Moses and Aaron, and Joseph and David.  Essentially a who is who’s list of the great biblical figures.  And then the spiritual presence of that guest is supposed to enhance your observance of the holiday that evening. 

     The tradition is not Jewish law, it is a custom.  So people have felt free to play around with it over the years and to invite other guests.  Women, for example, like Sarah or Rebecca from the Torah, or famous historical figures.  And ever since Yom Kippur I’ve been thinking there is one particular person that I would like to invite to the sukkah this year, a person whom I really feel could benefit from a visit to a sukkah – namely the prophet Jonah.  

     I’m sure you all remember Jonah, after all we just read his story a few days ago on Yom Kippur afternoon, what we call Maftir Yonah.  Jonah is a cantankerous character at best.  If you’ll allow me to digress fo a moment, I am guessing many of you are familiar with the Odd Couple TV show from the 70s?  The premise of the show was that two divorced friends decide to move in together, and they are very different people.  Jack Klugman plays Oscar, a sports writer who is a complete slob, and Tony Randall plays Felix Unger, a neat freak and a perfectionist who must have everything exactly the way he wants it to be.  The Felix character?  That is sort of like Jonah the prophet.

     Jonah is argumentative, head strong, critical, very particular, and also in his own way, a perfectionist.  If something is going to be done, he wants it done his way, and if it isn’t done his way he doesn’t have much interest in it.  At the beginning of the book he doesn’t think the mission that God assigns to him is worth his time, so tries to flee from God by climbing on a ship and sailing away.  When God finally forces him to go to Nineveh and pronounce a prophecy, he does so reluctantly and petulantly.  Most prophets once they start talking, they talk!  But Jonah begrudgingly walks into Nineveh, and says exactly 5 words.  

     And then there is that curious story at the end of the book of Jonah.  He is clearly disappointed that God decides to spare the city, almost like he feels God wasted his time.  And he sulks off, and sits down pouting, מקדם לעיר – on the east side of the city.  And what does he do there, Jonah?  ויעש לו שם סוכה – he makes for himself a sukkah.  Remember that one of the rules for building a sukkah is it must have a roof made from material that comes from a living plant, and Jonah’s sukkah even has some sechach.  It is that weird plant that God makes grow over Jonah’s head while he sits in his sukkah.

     But if you build a sukkah yourself during the holiday, you know that there are inevitably problems with it.  Wind might come up and blow the roof off.  Rain might cause it to collapse.  Inevitably in the course of the holiday the sukkah requires repair, sometimes even complete rebuilding.  And that is what happens with Jonah’s sukkah.  That weird plant that God made for the sukkah’s roof, it dies.  OK!  It happens on Sukkot, it is part of the holiday.  But Jonah becomes despondent!  So much so that he actually says, “I don’t want to live anymore!”  טוב מותי מחיי

     And I’ve always thought that is Jonah’s way of saying “if things are not going to be the way I want them to be, then I don’t want to have anything to do with it!  Leave me out!”  Jonah’s failure is that he doesn’t learn the lesson that sitting in a sukkah is supposed to teach us, or at least one of the lessons.  A sukkah by definition is imperfect.  It has to be flimsy in order to be considered kosher.  Its roof has to have holes in it.  It is going to be dirty, a little bit uncomfortable, and crowded.  At night it might be cold, in the day too hot.  There are spiders and other creepy crawly things in it.  But the tradition says to us, in this place of imperfection, that is where you will find שמחה – that is where you will find joy.  

     I think that is an often over looked message of Sukkot, but an important one.  Because the sukkah – with all of its imperfections, its challenges, its difficulties –  is in a sense a microcosm of the world.  And when the tradition tells us we can find joy in the imperfection of a sukkah, what it is really doing is reminding us that we can find joy in our lives and in the world around us – despite the fact that neither – not our lives, not the world – is perfect.  And that, I think, is precisely the lesson that Jonah fails to grasp.

     Which is why I would like to invite him back to the sukkah this year, as one of the Ushpizin.  To give him another chance to sit in a sukkah, and maybe this time to be able to set aside his need for control and perfection, and to learn to live  – and live with joy – in a world that might not always meet his expectations.  

     May we all learn to do the same in our sukkot on this holiday, and beyond – 

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Summer Stillness

A gentle breeze was blowing when I found Rabbi Loeb sitting on the wooden bench outside of our chapel.  It was late on a Shabbat afternoon, at the end of a gorgeous summer day, not too hot, not too cool, just exactly right.  In a short while the evening service would begin, the Torah would be read, havdallah chanted.  But in some magical way time seemed to stop.  Rabbi Loeb, always running, always with a next thing, always with a deadline, was relaxed and peaceful.  He looked at the flowers, the green grass, the leaves in the trees, at the edifice of the building that housed the congregation he had served for decades.  He looked up at the blue sky, just beginning to darken to a deeper shade in the east.

I sat down on the bench next to him.  We didn’t say a word.  Just took pleasure in the sharing of that moment, each with our own thoughts.  Spring was behind us, and the fall with its demands seemed a long ways off.  It was summer, the slower pace, the reverie, the subtle astonishment at the beauty of this world when it is in full bloom.  Somewhere a baseball game was being played, a lawn mowed, neighbors were sitting on a porch and discussing the events of the day, drinking iced tea or lemonade, listening to music playing on an old radio.  Somewhere.  But in our moment it was all stillness.

There is a beautiful midrash about the giving of the Ten Commandments, one of my favorites.  It imagines the precise moment before God spoke the words of Torah at Sinai as a moment of profound silence and stillness.  A moment when the world became soundless.  When even the endless waves of the sea stopped their incessant murmuring.  When the entire world paused to listen.

Sometimes there are no words.  That is a hard thing for a rabbi to admit.  In some ways we are paid talkers.  Our job is to speak, to teach and counsel and preach and bring meaning and context and comfort using words.  What is the old joke?  ‘Before I speak, I would just like to say a few words.’  That is a joke made for rabbis.

But sometimes silence is better.  Sometimes stillness gives us the opportunity to think and feel, to understand more deeply, to sense more profoundly, to experience more fully. In our increasingly busy and noisy world, those moments are few and far between.  But we should look for them, search them out.  Often they are right there, waiting to be discovered, waiting for us to be still, waiting for us to listen.  Like on a summer afternoon, on a wooden bench, under a clear blue sky.

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Elijah the Reconciler

Here is a text version of my sermon from 4/13/19 –

     It may be hard to believe, but one week from today seder #1 will already be over.  This coming Friday night Jews around the world will gather with family and friends, recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt, eat their matzah and maror, drink their wine, and celebrate their freedom.  The seder is a series wonderful rituals, from the symbolic foods that we eat, to the four questions that we ask, to the story of the five rabbis in B’nei Barak that we tell.  

     Were you to ask me what my favorite moment in the seder is it would be hard for me to choose, but if you pressed me I would probably say the moment when we welcome Elijah the Prophet to our seder table.  I have vivid memories from my childhood of intently staring at Elijah’s cup after the opening of the door, always astonished when somehow, seemingly by magic, the wine filled kiddish cup set aside for the Prophet began to shake.  It wasn’t until I was around the age of bar mitzvah that I learned the cup shook because my Uncle Marvin would bump the edge of the table with his thigh.

     At our seders I try to recreate that sense of mystery for the young children who are with us, although our niece Lily, now 9, long ago learned about the thigh bumping trick.   And the truth is my interest in Elijah and my fascination with the idea of the Prophet coming to the seder has stayed with me all these years.  Elijah’s arrival at the seder is a turning point in the ritual, redirecting us from the past we’ve been remembering – the Exodus events, the plagues, the experience of slavery – and pointing us to the future, the potential of a messianic era when pain and suffering will no longer be a part of the human experience.  

     The old joke is how does Elijah manage to get to all of those seders?  He must use the same Uber driver as Santa Clause.  But the truth is Elijah appears in the course of the Jewish year at three liturgical moments – the seder is one – what are the other two?  One is havdallah, and those of you who have come for Saturday evening services know that at the end of havdallah it is traditional to sing the song we’ll sing about Elijah at our seders – Eliyahu HaNavi!  So Elijah’s presence is invoked at every havdallah ceremony.  And when else?  The bris!  According to tradition Elijah is present at every bris, and if you’ve been to a bris recently you may remember that just before the circumcision the baby is placed in a special chair, referred to as Kisai Shel Eliyahu – the Chair of Elijah.  

     The question is why does Elijah appear at these three moments, what is it that they have in common, and the answer is each is a moment of transition.  On Pesah we transition from slavery to freedom.  At havdallah we transition from the end of Shabbat to the work day week.  And at the bris the baby transitions from being outside of the covenant to being on the inside.  And Elijah is the symbolic figure of transition in Judaism, because Elijah, according to the tradition, is the one who will announce the coming of the messiah, and that will be the ultimate transition.

     But if Elijah is the figure of transition in the tradition, he is also a symbol of resolution.  I imagine you know that the Talmud is filled with debate after debate, about just about anything you could imagine under the sun, from dates to rituals to the meaning of biblical text.  And sometimes, in the course of talmudic discourse, the debate is left without any kind of resolution, without any kind of decision being made as to which opinion is right and which is wrong.  When that happens in the Talmud – when there is an unresolved dispute –  you will often find the following word written at the end of the debate: Teiku.  That is actually an acronym in Hebrew – ת – י – ק – ו and those letters stand for Tishbi – Yitareitz – Kushiyot – u’Ba’ayot – which means:  the Tishabite will resolve the talmudic debates and other problems.  Who is the Tishabaite?  Who is the Tishbi?  Elijah!  And the tradition believes that when that day comes, and Elijah arrives to announce the Messiah’s imminence, he will also resolve all of those talmudic debates, telling us which opinion was right, and which one was wrong. 

  That idea of Elijah as the one who resolves debates and fixes problems also has something to do with Passover.  If you were following along with Ben’s chanting of this morning’s haftara, special for this Shabbat, Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Passover, you may have noticed that in the last lines of the text Elijah is mentioned.  Here are the verses:  “Behold I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great, awe filled day.  והישיב לב אבות על בנים ולב בנים על אבותם – and he will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents.”

     In other words, Elijah, at least according to this text, will be the reconciler, the one who restores broken relationships in families, who heals the rifts that all too often develop over time between us and those we love.  And so we need Elijah to appear, not only on the night of the seder, but also on this Shabbat, almost a week before Passover, because we know when the holiday comes our family will be gathering.  And we know how painful it is to sit at the seder table with someone with whom we feel distant.  Or how even more painful it is to sit at the seder table without someone who should be there, because of some old, unresolved dispute.

     But it is here where I would differ with the tradition.  Don’t wait for Elijah to come to resolve those disagreements and divisions.  In the seders of my childhood Elijah’s cup moved not because the great Prophet had arrived and somehow sipped the wine.  Instead, as I learned when I got older – that cup was shaking because of human action.  So it is in our own lives and our own families.  When we want to heal a division – in our world, in our families, even in our own hearts – we are the ones who must, to use the words of this morning’s haftara, heishiv lev – we are the ones who must turn our hearts.  That internal turning is the only thing I know of that can lead to the external actions – the call, the conversation, the apology, the decision – that can make the difference between the world we live in now, and the world we want to live in one day.

     May Passover this year bring that spirit into our hearts and into our world – 

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In Defense of Clutter

There is a tidying up fad that is seeping through our culture these days.  Sparked by Marie Kondo’s best selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the anti-clutter movement holds out hope that as we declutter our homes what we are really doing is changing our lives.  Kondo often talks about the tidying up process being connected to  personal transformation.  The premise is that as you sort through your old clothes, as you tidy up your closets and drawers, as you separate the wheat from the chaff, you somehow become a calmer, more capable, more mindful person.

One of Kondo’s fundamental principles is that the decluttering process should be based on whether an object ‘sparks joy’ or not.  That is to say, as you declutter you evaluate each item on a joy scale.  Something that gives you a feeling of joy should be kept, something that does not should be thrown away.  This idea seems to me flawed at best.  Like so many of the currently popular self help structures it creates a beautiful mirage, a kind of hologram, that dissolves upon closer inspection.  I wonder how much ‘there’ is actually there.  Life is not always about joy.  Often life is about pragmatism. What needs to be done is not always what is fun to do, or easy to do.

The truth is life is messy, unpredictable, often out of our control, and yes, dare I say it, cluttered.  Parents age and become infirm (as do we all!).  Divorce happens.  Responsibility encroaches.  Children and grandchildren are flawed and not always exactly what we hope they will be, let alone perfect.  Illness confronts us.  Life can change on a dime, and when it does having a clean closet won’t help you one bit.

Besides, clutter adds texture.  Clutter is interesting.  All those piles, those awkwardly stacked books, those drawers filled with old mementos, those photographs stashed away in boxes, the magazines tucked away on a shelf.  That is the stuff of life, not clean, but certainly colorful, and also real.  What would we be without our clutter?  Calmer?  Perhaps a bit.  But I would argue also much more boring, cookie cutter copies of one another with identical closets and drawers and shelves.  Isn’t that weird?  Impersonal?  A bit robotic, even?

The old saying is ‘a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind.’  The famous riposte to that phrase still stands:  ‘if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is the sign of an empty desk?’

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On Saturday the Rabbi…

Went to shul, of course!  Yes, even when I am away, even when vacationing, if I can I go to shul.  The truth is I’ve always liked it, going all the way back to my Hebrew school days.  The other students in my class would complain when we were brought in to sit in services, but I didn’t mind.  There was something about it, hard to identify, difficult to pinpoint, maybe impossible for me to explain.

The truth is, I would rather sit in the pews.  My guess is if you polled a group of rabbis about this question, a fair number would tell you they want to be on the bima conducting the service.  I’ve even known a few rabbis who have said to me ‘why would I go to shul if I am not running the service?’  But I enjoy just sitting quietly, doing a bit of davening, following the Torah reading and checking some of the commentaries, just the sort of quiet head space of it all.  Isn’t that part of what shul is supposed to be about anyway?

I also enjoy seeing how things work in other congregations.  It is a big Jewish world out there!  In our own spaces we can get so tied down to OUR way of doing it, the tunes we use, the readings we do, when we sit and stand, even where people sit – it can all become sacrosanct.  There is an old joke in the ‘business’ – you could cut the entire Shema out of the service and no one would say a thing, but if you change the tune of Aleinu, beware!  Of course it isn’t exactly true, but it is true enough.

But a little bit of traveling will remind you that there are a million and one customs, a million and one different ways to do it, each community with its own version.  And yet in some profound way it is all connected, and you can feel at home in any shul, big or small, local or far away.  In one way or another the Torah will be read, the Shema recited, the Aleinu sung.  And you realize, when all is said and down, it is your place, these are your traditions, the people here are your community.  And the shul is your shul, too.

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The Glasses

These are the little things that remind us that time is creeping by.  A bit like an honest look in the mirror, one of those moments when you realize you aren’t in Kansas anymore, that you actually do look your age, and that your age is somewhere in the mid-50s!  Who knew?!

And so it was that I set out, just late enough not to turn back, to officiate at a funeral.  I was most of the way down the street when I realized I had left my reading glasses at home.  I’ve been wearing reading glasses for some time now, close to a decade, but until very recently I could pretty much get by without them in a pinch, particularly if the light in the room was good and I wasn’t too tired.  If you use reading glasses yourself, you’ll know what I mean.

But just the last month or so I’ve needed them more and more.  Those little blurry things on that page are letters?  Good light still helped, but trying to read a menu in a restaurant had become impossible – it essentially looked like a series of ink schmears on yellow paper.  Nevertheless, here I was, Rabbi’s Manual in hand, eulogy printed out in 12 point font, and in 15 minutes or so I would be standing in front of a group of mourners, reading from that manual and delivering that eulogy, no reading glasses in sight.

It wasn’t perfect, but in the end it worked out OK.  The light was good, and I adjusted the lectern so it was as far away from my eyes as it could possibly be.  I had just written the eulogy, so it was fresh in my mind, and that also helped.  The truth is I barely need the Rabbi’s Manual.  I’ve read those prayers hundreds and hundreds of times, and they are imprinted in my mind.  It is pretty much like starting the tape and letting it play.  Even so, I’ve seen Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead forget the words to Me and My Uncle, a song he has sung more than a thousand times.  He now uses an iPad so the lyrics are always there, just in case.  So it is with my Rabbi’s Manual.  More of a crutch than a necessity.

And that is the funny thing about it.  As a young rabbi, I didn’t need the glasses.  Everything was crystal clear, whether near or far.  But I sure needed that Rabbi’s Manual.  The thought of conducting a service without one would have terrified me twenty years ago.  Now it is exactly the opposite.  The manual I don’t really need anymore, or at least I know I can get buy without it in a pinch.  But I sure need those reading glasses!  The more experience I have, the muddier things get.  Ah, the wisdom of aging…

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Three (unheralded!) Heroes of the Haggadah

This a text version of my sermon from the first day of Passover, 5777 – enjoy the holiday!!

It is an often remarked upon oddity that Moses’ name does not appear anywhere in the traditional text of the Haggadah.   I don’t know whether you realized it as you read the retelling of the exodus story last night.  Pharaoh is mentioned, great talmudic sages like Rabbi Akiva are mentioned, even Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ brother and sister, are referred to in the text.  But Moses, who worked harder than anyone to bring about the redemption of the Israelites, who bravely walked into Pharaoh’s throne room to demand that the Israelites be let go, who raised his staff and split the waters at the sea – Moses gets not one single mention.  It is strange to say the least, and clearly intentional.  The authors, the creators of the Haggadah, did not want Moses’ name to appear. (*see the note at the end of the text for a full explanation)

Over the years many reasons have been proposed as to why this is the case.  The most common explanation is that the sages who wrote the text of the Haggadah wanted to emphasize the Divine role in the redemption from Egypt, not a human’s role – not even Moses’.  It has also been said that Moses’ absence is yet another indication of his extreme sense of humility, and that he himself had a hand in making sure his name did not appear on the night of the seder.

But I would like to suggest another reason today.  I think the Haggadah authors may have left Moses out because his presence in the text would have overshadowed  – not God – but the other people in the Haggadah that we’ve come to know so well over the years.  If Moses appeared on every page – and he would be on virtually every page – we wouldn’t pay much attention to the story of the Sages in B’nei Barak, or Rabban Gamliel’s description’s of the Pesah, Matzah, and Marror.  I would even argue were Moses the focus of the Haggadah, even Elijah the prophet might get lost in the shuffle.  So by eliminating Moses, the Haggadah democratizes the events of the Exodus, showing us that this was something that came about – and in a way continues to come about – through the efforts of many, not just one man.   And as important as Moses was, we also needed all of the other contributors to make our way from slavery to freedom.

Moses’ absence on the seder nights also gives us an opportunity to search for other heroes in the Haggadah that we might not otherwise see.  And this morning I would like to tell you about three heroes of mine who appear in the pages of the Haggadah, on the surface perhaps minor characters in the great drama of the seder, often overlooked of dismissed, but characters who play crucial roles in our understanding the meaning of Passover.

The first is Ben Zoma.  Does that name sound familiar?  Do you remember where he appears?  Just after the story of the 5 Sages staying up all night and telling the Passover story, there is a short and also strange paragraph.  It is about Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, where he says – הרי אני כבן שבעים שנה –  ‘I am like a man of 70 years.’  And he is struggling to understand a verse from the Torah – anyone remember what it is?  It has to do with mentioning the Exodus from Egypt ALL the days of your life.  And Rabbi Elazar – one of the great talmudic sages of all time – says that he never understood that verse until it was explained to him by a lesser sage named Ben Zoma.  Anyone remember Ben Zoma’s answer?  He says ALL the days of your life includes not only the days, when it is actually daylight outside, but also the nights.  This is actually one of the reasons we say the third paragraph of the shema not only in the morning, but also at night, during evening services.

But what I love about Ben Zoma, the reason he is one of my three unheralded Haggadah heroes, is that he reminds us that Judaism is something that has to be practiced every day in order to be truly meaningful.  It can’t just be about the seder night, it can’t just be abut Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.  Those are the big, dramatic moments.  But the real beauty of Judaism is in the quiet moments, even the mundane moments, the ebb and flow of everyday life.  It is easy to lose track of that, especially on a seder night when we put so much effort into telling the Passover story.  Ben Zoma reminds us that the true power of Judaism is not found in a single night, but instead in כל ימי חייך – in ALL the days of your life.  That is why he is my first Haggadah hero.

The next is a surprise choice, a character you probably would not expect to make my list – the Rasha.  Who is that?  Right, the wicked child (son), in the four sons section the one son who is considered to be excluded from the community.  You remember his question – מה העבודה הזה לכם – what does this ritual mean to YOU.  And we say since he said ‘you’ and not ‘us’ he implied that he wants nothing to do with Jewish life.  The Rasha is the great villain of the Haggadah.  Pharaoh is bad enough, but we’re used to dealing with outsiders who are after us.  But to be rejected by someone in our own community is painful.

But without the Rasha we might experience the seder night as a perfect narrative, almost a fairy tale.  The evil King is defeated in the person of Pharaoh.  The people are released from their slavery.  Those who subjected them – the Egyptians – are punished by the plagues.  Without the Rasha it would all be a nice, neat package.  And that is precisely why we need the Rasha in the Haggadah.  We don’t live in a fairy tale world, we live in the real world, a world that badly needs fixing, a world that sometimes seems it is filled with wicked people.  The Rasha reminds us that although we might step out of reality when we sit down at the seder table, when the seder ends, and Elijah leaves, and the last morsel of afikoman is eaten, we return to a world that badly needs fixing, and we have a role to play in that process.

My last Haggadah hero is the mystery man of the seder.  You remember the passage ‘my father was a wandering Aramean?’  It is never quite clear who exactly that person is.  Some commentators suggest it is Abraham, the first wandering Jew.  Others think it is Jacob, who did in his life wander to Egypt.  Some even say it is Laban, Jacob’s uncle.  The bottom line is the text is ambiguous, and the figure remains unidentified.

I’ve always imagined that figure as my Zaydie, my dad’s father.  He was a quiet, soft spoken, and largely reserved man, very mild mannered.  I think he had to be that way given my Bubbe’s strong personality.  But as mild mannered as he was, he was a wanderer.  He made a choice when he was about 16 or 17 years old to undertake a journey, to leave the small village he lived in in eastern Europe, and to come here to the United States with the hopes of creating a new life.  In that moment he joined in the age old Jewish story of diaspora, of the constant and restless search for freedom and dignity and tolerance.  And I remember many a seder from my childhood when I watched my Zaydie, quietly sitting at a table surrounded by his children and grandchildren, the generations of his family, and I think in those moments he was reflecting – with gratitude –  on how successful his search had been.

So there you have it.  My three unheralded Haggadah heroes.   Perhaps you have some of you own.  If you don’t, you might spend a few moments at your seder tonight considering who they might be.  Because each character in the text has a crucial role to play in the story of our freedom, in the journeys we undertake in our own lives.

 

  • Moses’ name and the Haggadah text – It is true that some contemporary haggadot will use Moses’ name, either in commentary, or in a new version of the main text.  Also, some traditional haggadot include the text of a midrash brought in the name of Rabbi Yosi HaGlili that includes Moses’ name.  Here is a note from my friend Dr. Josh Kulp’s ‘Historical Haggadah’ regarding that midrash:  “The section with the derash of Rabbi Yosi HaGlili is found in the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael (an early midrasnhic collection on Exodus).  That this text is missing from many medieval Haggadot and from all early Israeli versions of the Haggadah indicates that this was a late edition to the Haggadah, and that the Rabbi Yosi HaGlili text (with its inclusion of Moses’ name) was certainly not originally composed as a liturgical piece to be recited at the seder.”  All of this is to say that the original authors of the Haggadah text intended that Moses’s name not appear.zaydiestone

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