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Shavua Tov: Merle and Moses

2 Nisan 5776 / April 10, 2016

As Passover approaches, Moses has been on my mind. Questions like, “why does the Haggadah, the Passover telling-book, virtually ignore him?” and “Why is his grave unmarked, while anybody can pray by the Tombs of the Patriarchs?” The Midrash has some answers – something about not turning him into an object of worship.So why are we not similarly concerned about the Patriarchs? Freud had a theory: that Moses was murdered by his own people in the desert. Hillel the Elder tells us to be not like Moses, but more like his less complicated brother, Aaron, “loving peace, pursuing peace, loving all creatures and bringing them closer to Torah.”

Today, as Merle Haggard, Country music’s greatest prophet, is laid to rest, I find new insights and intriguing parallels. Both Merle and Moses died on their birthdays, both in the month of Adar. Moses named his first son Gershom, for “I was a stranger in a strange land.” Merle’s first band was called “The Strangers.” Both were voracious writers working with divine inspiration. Moses was a descendant of Hebrew nomads, Merle of Okies whose barn burned down. Both grew up away from home – Moses was set adrift on the Nile in a small basket, while Merle hopped on a boxcar to escape his strictly religious, recently widowed mother. Both ran afoul of the law. Both had theophanies in exile that transformed their lives – Moses with the Burning Bush at Sinai, Merle with the Man in Black in San Quentin. Both were reluctant prophets.

Merle’s greatest hit, “Okie from Muskogee,” was most likely meant as a parody. He joked that he wrote “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee” while passing along a joint. 35 years later he admitted he was “dumb as a rock” for writing it. Moses likely felt the same way for hitting a rock. Merle had trouble getting recorded “Irma Jackson,” his paean to interracial love. Moses was married to Tzipporah, an Ethiopian woman.

Neither Merle nor Moses felt completely comfortable in his role. Merle stopped performing “Okie” for years, despite that it got him pardoned by then-Gov. Reagan and a few invites to the Nixon White House. Moses, always being bailed out by God, would still literally fall on his face when challenged by Israelites, and could not merit setting foot on the Promised Land.

How does this help me understand Passover? Perhaps the greatest parallel between the two prophets was their capacity for growth. Both started out as firebrands. Moses murdered an Egyptian taskmaster, while Merle did hard time for burglary. Moses started out as “not a man of dvarim,” or “words,” but ended his life with a long valedictory called “Dvarim.” Merle started heavy drinking as a young man, and his affliction continued through four failed marriages. But Merle finally got clean and sober, and died surrounded by his fifth wife of more than 15 years, and his loving family. Two lives begin under a dark cloud and end in sunny vistas.

Our Sages say we should “begin the seder with disgrace and end with praise.” This is why we begin the Maggid, or “Telling” part of the seder by holding up the Matzah and saying “this is the bread of affliction,” and “now we are slaves, next year let us be free.” Our Sages say one is supposed to see the Exodus as if one personally left Egypt. What’s your story of growth? What’s your story of challenges, of recovery? What role did the spirit play in your journey? This is what the Torah means when it calls us to “tell your child on that day, saying ‘this is for what Adonai did for ME when I left Egypt.’” Whoever does so is “worthy of great praise.” Shavua Tov.


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