Read an Excerpt
The Man Who Dared to Dream
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Langston Hughes, “Harlem”
In these lines, the poet Langston Hughes wonders what happens to dreams that don’t come true. I wonder what happens to the dreamer. How do people cope with the realization that important dimensions of their lives will not turn out as they hoped they would? A person’s marriage isn’t all he or she anticipated. Someone doesn’t get the promotion or the recognition he had set his heart on. Many of us look at the world and see two groups of people, winners and losers: those who get what they want out of life and those who don’t. But in reality life is more complicated than that. Nobody gets everything he or she yearns for. I look at the world and see three sorts of people: those who dream boldly even as they realize that a lot of their dreams will not come true; those who dream more modestly and fear that even their modest dreams may not be realized; and those who are afraid to dream at all, lest they be disappointed. I would wish for more people who dreamed boldly and trusted their powers of resilience to see them through the inevitable disappointments.
History is written by winners, so most history books are about people who win. Most biographies, excluding works of pure scholarship, are meant to inspire as much as to inform, so they focus on a person’s successes. But in real life, even the most successful people see some of their efforts fail and even the greatest of people learn to deal with failure, rejection, bereavement, and serious illness.
The lessons of this book will come in large part from examining the life of one of the most influential people who ever lived, Moses, the hero of the Bible, the man who brought God’s word down to earth from the mountaintop. When we think of Moses, we think of his triumphs: leading the Israelites out of slavery, splitting the Red Sea, ascending Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the law. But Moses was a man who knew frustration and failure in his public and personal life at least as often and as deeply as he knew fulfillment, and we, whose lives are also a mix of fulfillment and disappointment, can learn from his experiences. If he could overcome his monumental disappointments, we can learn to overcome ours.
What can we learn from Moses’ story to help my congregant who is overlooked for a promotion or the elderly man or woman whose children and grandchildren ignore him or her? What can I learn from Moses to share with all the wives and husbands who find it hard to feel affectionate toward a mate who takes them for granted? Let us turn to the story of Moses, the man who dared to dream, to see what lessons it reveals.
Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel has written in Messengers of God that Moses was “the most solitary and the most powerful hero in biblical history . . . the man who changed the course of history by himself. After him, nothing was the same again.” He goes on: “His passion for social justice, his struggle for national liberation, his triumphs and disappointments, his poetic inspiration, his gifts as a strategist and his organizational genius, his complex relationship with God and God’s people . . . his efforts to reconcile the law with compassion, authority with integrity—no individual ever, anywhere accomplished so much for so many people in so many domains. His influence is boundless.” The teachings of Jesus and Paul in the New Testament would be unintelligible unless read against the background of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. The revelation to Muhammad at the inception of Islam assumes that the earlier revelation to Moses contained the authentic words of God. Even such secular prophets as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud drew their passion for justice and freedom from the life and teachings of Moses.
We may think that we know about Moses, if not from Sunday school classes, then perhaps from one of the movies about his life. If we do, chances are that we relegate that knowledge to the dusty corner of our consciousness reserved for old Sunday school lessons, entertaining and probably edifying but not that relevant to our daily lives. But let me give you a fuller view of him, not only the man on the mountaintop, the man to whom God spoke with unparalleled intimacy, but Moses the human being, a man whose soaring triumphs were offset by crushing defeats in some of the things that mattered most to him, a man who came to realize the price his family paid for his successes. In the end, I trust we will still see him as a hero to admire and learn from, maybe even more heroic when the all-too-human qualities of longing, frustration, regret, and resiliency have been added to the portrait. Let me review his story, as told in the book of Exodus and the narrative portions of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
Jacob, the third of the biblical patriarchs, son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, moved his large family from Canaan to Egypt during one of the droughts that often afflicted that part of the world. There they were welcomed warmly in a country where Jacob’s son Joseph, by a series of fortuitous events, had become an important government official and had arranged for Egypt to be the only country with abundant food during hard times. The clan of Israel (as Jacob was sometimes called) settled there and flourished.
A generation or two later, “there arose a new king in Egypt who knew not Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). The reference may be to a native Egyptian Pharaoh who resented the prominence of some of the non-Egyptians in his kingdom. He may have seen them as a threat to his rule and reduced them to slavery, setting them to the task of building the royal fortifications and storehouses.
Before long, the Pharaoh’s contempt for the Hebrew slaves turned into irrational hatred. He commanded that all male Israelite babies be killed at birth, thrown into the Nile to drown (not a good way to maintain his slave labor force, but such is the power of irrational hate). The midwives who served the Hebrew population foiled his plan by sparing the babies and lying to Pharaoh, telling him that Israelite women were like animals, dropping their babies before the midwives could attend to them. Pharaoh believed their story because he needed to see the Israelites as less human than Egyptians in order to justify his treatment of them.
It was into this world that Moses was born. The narrative of his early years is typical of the hero narrative, the stories typically told about a child who will grow up to be someone special. The child is born to worthy parents, either after years of childlessness or at a time of great peril. He is separated from his parents and grows up ignorant of his heritage. We hear little of his early years, until he comes of age and is summoned to do great things.
To save the newborn child’s life, Moses’ mother places him in a basket, sets him afloat in the Nile, and sends his older sister, Miriam, to watch and see what happens to him. Pharaoh’s daughter, having gone down to bathe in the Nile, finds him and adopts him. Why was Pharaoh’s daughter bathing in the Nile when she had a houseful of servants available to draw her bath in the palace? One Talmudic sage suggests that she opposed her father’s treatment of the Israelites (I picture her as an idealistic adolescent). She was going to immerse herself in the Nile to identify with the Hebrew slaves at the place of their greatest suffering and to cleanse herself of the shame of being Pharaoh’s daughter.
Moses, having been adopted by Pharaoh, is raised in the palace, though the Bible tells of Pharaoh’s daughter hiring Moses’ own mother, whose breasts were still overflowing with milk, to be his nursemaid. In every other hero narrative I know of, from Oedipus to Harry Potter, the hero is born to noble parents and raised by peasants, with his real identity emerging years later. Only in the story of Moses is the hero born into a slave family and adopted by a king. The Bible would seem to imply that it is nobler to be a Hebrew slave than to be an Egyptian prince.
The Bible passes in silence over Moses’ growing-up years. In one verse, he is an infant floating in the Nile. In the next (Exodus 2:11), he is a grown man. Again this is typical of the hero narrative. In the New Testament, three of the four gospels totally omit any reference to Jesus’ childhood or youth, and the fourth, the Gospel according to Luke, devotes only a single paragraph (Luke 2:41–51) to anything Jesus did between his birth and his emergence as an adult.
Now Moses’ career begins. He leaves the privileged sanctuary of Pharaoh’s palace. “When Moses had grown up, he went out to his brethren and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen” (Exodus 2:11). Did Moses know that he himself was a Hebrew, protected from the fate of the other Israelites because he was Pharaoh’s adopted grandson? Or is it only the narrator of the story who knows that the Hebrew slaves are Moses’ brethren? Did Moses think of himself as an Egyptian? Granted, as an infant he was nursed by his birth mother who may have conveyed to him a sense of his true identity. But he would not have been nursed for more than two or three years at most, probably not long enough for him to be told anything he would understand or remember. I would like to think that, when the Bible refers to Moses’ “brethren” and his “kinsmen,” it is speaking of his readiness to identify with the oppressed, the downtrodden, the marginalized members of society. Despite his privileged upbringing, when he sees a strong Egyptian beating a weak Hebrew, his instinct is to identify with the weak, a phenomenon we have often seen as men and women from comfortable backgrounds identify with the oppressed in their society rather than with the privileged.
Moses not only feels sympathy and kinship for the slave who is being beaten, he intervenes to help him, striking down the Egyptian, killing him and burying his body. Later in the Torah, Moses will proclaim the word of God, “Thou shalt not murder” (not “Thou shalt not kill” [Exodus 20:13]), but will also proclaim, “Thou shalt not stand idly by when your neighbor’s blood is shed” (Leviticus 19:16). From the very first words describing Moses as an adult, we come to see him as a man who sides with the oppressed and who unhesitatingly takes action to correct an injustice.
The next day, Moses sees two Hebrews fighting, or more likely, one Hebrew man beating up a weaker, more vulnerable neighbor (the biblical text refers to one of the combatants as “the offender,” the one who was doing wrong). Moses challenges the aggressor: “Why do you strike your fellow?” The man responds, “Who made you a ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” (Exodus 2:13–14). Moses realizes that his deed of the previous day is known and that he is a wanted man. He flees Egypt and escapes into the desert of Midian. There he comes to the rescue of the daughters of the Midianite high priest Jethro who are being harassed by shepherds. Jethro takes Moses into his home and gives him his daughter Zipporah as his wife.
The brief incident of the quarreling Hebrews sounds two themes that will continue to shape Moses’ life. The first is the pattern of Moses being threatened by men and saved by women. Pharaoh seeks his death along with that of all the Israelite male babies; Pharaoh’s daughter, aided by Moses’ sister and mother, rescue him even as the midwives rescued other Israelite babies. The Egyptian authorities seek to punish him for killing the taskmaster; Zipporah prevails on her father to bring him into their home and becomes his wife. There is even a bizarre incident, which baffles the best of scholars, in which God threatens to kill Moses (was it a nightmare? a sudden illness attributed to God?) and Zipporah saves him (Exodus 4:24–26).
These experiences leave their mark on Moses’ way of understanding the world. They teach him the importance of a safe, protective home in the midst of a dangerous world. They prepare him for his encounter with a God who is both male and female, simultaneously powerful and dangerous but also lifesaving and protective. The God of Moses will sometimes show masculine-aggressive traits, raining down plagues on Egypt, striking down sinners by the hundreds and thousands, calling for the demolition of sites of idolatry. But that same God, though the Bible will refer to Him grammatically as male, will just as often display a feminine, nurturing side, bringing forth life, feeding the hungry, comforting the fearful, tending to the sick. Moses will come to recognize his own masculine and feminine sides, both the angry, destructive impulses welling up from within him (smiting the Egyptian and later quash- ing rebellions against his authority) and the tender, nurturing impulses (leading a people through a wilderness, providing them with food and water, both of which he will go on to do) as manifestations of God and of his own reach toward godliness.
The second theme sounded by that incident of the quarreling Hebrews will be an even more constant refrain in Moses’ life. If, as the Bible emphasizes, there were no witnesses to his striking down the Egyptian except for the Hebrew man being beaten, how did the fact become known barely a day later? One commentator suggests that the Hebrew who challenged Moses on the second day was the same man he had saved from a beating the day before! Who else would have been in a position to know about it? Isn’t it psychologically understandable that a man who had just been beaten up might himself look for someone weaker to beat up, in order to restore his sense of power? Moses has just learned his first lesson, to be repeated often in the ensuing years, about the ingratitude of people he has set out to help.
The cynical wisdom that “no good deed goes unpunished” may be true. Many people resent having favors done for them. Being in need of someone’s help can make a person feel weak, less than competent. During the forty years that Moses will spend leading his people through the wilderness, there will be frequent occasions when they will forget that he was the one who brought them out of slavery. They will even forget how miserable slavery was. All they will know will be the discomfort of living in a wilderness, the uncertainty of finding food and water, the elusiveness of their destination, and the abundance of rules designed to keep them from doing what they might want to do. Moses’ gifts of leadership through much of that time will be not only the heroism of the leader who struck off slavery’s chains and parted the Red Sea, but the perseverance and loyalty of the leader who remains committed to his goals even when the people for whom he is working fail to appreci- ate him.
Joseph Campbell, the authority on mythology well known for his books and his appearances on public television with Bill Moyers, finds a pattern in the life of virtually every hero, historical or mythological. He describes a cycle of separation, initiation, and return. Confronting a society in turmoil, a person who has lived an ordinary life to that point leaves that society and spends years in exile or isolation. There he undergoes a transformative experience. He is exposed to a truth of which he had not previously been aware. He may be given a secret weapon, a charm, or a valuable bit of information that will enable him to carry out his task. He then returns home, as Campbell says in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “armed with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Historian Arnold Toynbee uses the terms detachment and transfiguration to describe the same process. That is precisely what will hap- pen to Moses following his flight from Egypt after killing the Egyptian.
I should emphasize that just because this pattern is a constant element of mythological tales doesn’t mean that it is not true and did not really happen to Moses, or that his story was altered to fit the mythological hero pattern. Consider the life story of Martin Luther King Jr., so recent a figure that mythical elements have not yet crept into his story. Born into the segregated South, he left to study theology at Boston University, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the theology of nonviolence. He then returned to the South, armed with the knowledge, inspiration, and confidence to lead his people to freedom. His life story follows the mythological hero pattern to the letter, but it is in fact exactly what happened and thus can teach us to recognize that there may be historical as well as psychological truths in the myth-tales.
For that matter, we can see the young Franklin Roosevelt as a charming but lightweight political dilettante who had to withdraw from public life when he lost the use of his legs to polio. In those years of exile, he developed the strength of character that enabled him to become the leader he would go on to be.
To return to the biblical account: Moses then spends several years in the home of Jethro, long enough to father two sons. The Bible gives us no clue as to whether at this point in his life he knows he was born an Israelite or whether he thinks of himself as an Egyptian. When Zipporah brings him home for the first time and tells her father of how he had helped them, she says, “An Egyptian man rescued us from the shepherds” (Exodus 2:19). But now something happens that will change his life, and ultimately change the history of the world.
Moses is caring for Jethro’s flock of sheep, pasturing them in the vicinity of a mountain considered holy by the Midianites, when he sees a bush that is on fire but does not burn up. Intrigued by the phenomenon, he approaches it, at which point God speaks to him out of the burning bush. (Many religions, from Judaism to Zoroastrianism, use light and fire as symbols for the presence of God, perhaps because light, like God, cannot be seen but permits us to see everything there is, perhaps because fire liberates the energy hidden in a log of wood or a lump of coal just as God liberates the potential energy to do good things that is hidden in every human being, just as God will be the fire that burns within Moses, enabling him to do the great things he will go on to do, but not consuming him in the process.) The voice from the bush identifies itself as “the God of your father, the God of your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and says, “I have seen the suffering of My people in Egypt and am about to deliver them.”
As I read the story, this may be the first time that Moses is told that he, like his forebears, is an Israelite, and although it may be too much to expect him to banish all oppression and evil from the world and too little to deal with it one victim at a time, he can strike a blow for freedom and against cruelty by working for the freedom of his own people.
Moses’ first instinct, understandably enough, is to plead inadequacy: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). With these words, Moses establishes the model of the Reluctant Prophet who, summoned by God to do daunting things, responds by recognizing the magnitude of the challenge and his own human limitations. Later Israelites called by God to the prophetic role will follow his example. Hardly anyone (Isaiah may be the only exception) relishes the challenge of being God’s prophet, tell- ing people things they do not like being told. In God’s first charge to Moses’ successor, Joshua, God has to tell him five times in eight sentences to be strong and not be intimidated (Joshua 1:2–9). The warrior Gideon pleads with God: “How can I deliver Israel? My clan is the humblest in the tribe of Menasseh and I am the youngest in my father’s household” (Judges 6:15). Jeremiah responds to God’s summons by pleading, “Oh Lord God, I don’t know how to speak for I am still a boy” (Jeremiah 1:6). And Jonah famously tries to flee from God’s presence instead of bringing God’s word to the people of Nineveh, boarding a ship going in the opposite direction. It is a daunting, thankless job to bring God’s word to people who don’t want to hear it. Moses, knowing Pharaoh all too well, is terrified at the prospect of doing what God is asking of him.
To overcome Moses’ understandable reluctance, God answers him in a sentence that is often overlooked but that I consider to be one of the most important verses in all of Scripture. When Moses says, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” God answers not by telling Moses who he is, but by telling him who God is, saying, “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12). When Moses, in the next verse, asks God, “What is Your name?” that is, what is Your nature? What kind of God are you? God replies, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh,” three words so vague as to be virtually untranslatable, usually rendered somewhat mystifyingly as “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be.” But the Hebrew word ehyeh is the same word God used just two verses earlier, “I will be with you.”
As I understand it, that is God’s name. That is what God is all about. God is the One who is with us when we have to do something we don’t think we are capable of doing. God is the light shining in the midst of darkness, not to deny that there is darkness in the world but to reassure us that we do not have to be afraid of the darkness because darkness will always yield to light. As theologian David Griffin puts it in God, Power, and Evil, God is all-powerful but God’s power is not the power to control events; it is the power to enable people to deal with events beyond their, or even God’s, power to control. I imagine God saying to Moses, Where do you think the impulse came from to strike down the Egyptian slavedriver, to intervene on the side of the powerless, to protect Jethro’s daughters from the shepherds who harassed them? And who gave you the strength to do those things? It was because I was with you.
God is with the person who speaks out against injustice and exploitation. God is with the man or woman paralyzed by illness or accident who strives to lead a fulfilling life, and is with that person’s family as they care for him or her. God is with the person who doubts his or her ability to resist the lure of alcohol, drugs, or extramarital sex. Perhaps the most comforting line in the entire Bible, if not in all of literature, is the verse from the Twenty-third Psalm, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for Thou art with me” (my italics). To the people who insist, What do you want of me? I’m only human, God promises to be with them, assuring them that with God at their side they can be more than “only human.”
Moses returns to Egypt, and if his first attempt to intervene on behalf of the Israelites, breaking up a fight between two people, was met with resentment, his second and more ambitious effort fares no better. Pharaoh is predictably scornful of his demand (“Who is the Lord that I should heed Him?” [Exodus 5:2]), and the Israelites complain that his interference is only making things worse for them (“May God punish you for giving Pharaoh reasons to hate us and kill us” [Exodus 5:21]). But Moses perseveres. The Bible (Exodus 4:1–3, 7:8–10) describes God giving Moses the power to turn his walking stick into a snake, to impress the Israelites and to intimidate Pharaoh and his advisers. Why a snake? Is it only sleight of hand, a magic trick? One psychologist writing a study of Moses speculates that the snake, which sheds its skin so that it can grow, represents the ability of living creatures to change and transform themselves. Moses might be using the snake to say to the Israelites, You don’t have to be slaves all your lives. Life offers other possibilities. You can lose your chains even as the snake sheds its skin. He performs the trick before Pharaoh as a way of saying, You don’t have to continue being the harsh, cruel ruler you have been until now. Like the snake, you can grow and shed that identity. But the Israelites can’t bring themselves to believe him and Pharaoh dismisses him.
God then rains a series of plagues upon the Egyptians—frogs, vermin, hail, locusts, three days of darkness. (The darkness could not have been caused by a solar eclipse, which lasts for minutes, not days. Perhaps a sandstorm blocked the sun, but then couldn’t the Egyptians simply have lit candles to banish the darkness? I have long suspected that this plague was more a psychological than a meteorological darkness, that the Egyptians were emotionally battered by plague after plague and maybe even by having to confront their guilt about liv- ing comfortably in a society based on the exploitation of an oppressed minority. The Bible’s description of the plague of darkness, that people could not see anyone else or move out of their seats [Exodus 10:23], sounds a lot like depression to me.)
And finally, when none of these plagues could persuade Pharaoh to let his slaves go free, Egypt is hit by the most terrible plague of all. As punishment for a society that killed Israelite children, a mysterious illness kills the firstborn child in every Egyptian home. At this point, Pharaoh relents and lets the people go.
Moses leads the Israelites out in triumph through the divided waters of the Red Sea, and brings them to the mountain, Mount Sinai, where God had first spoken to him from the burning bush. There one of the defining moments of human history takes place. In the midst of thunder and lightning and billowing smoke, the people hear God Himself proclaim the Ten Commandments as the basis of a covenant between a people and its God.
A covenant is like a contract, but more solemn and serious. More than an agreement, it is a binding commitment. Buying a house or a car involves a contract; once the deal is completed, the relationship between buyer and seller ends. Getting married is (or should be) a covenant, a lifelong, enduring obligation. In the covenant at Mount Sinai, the people of Israel agree to live a distinctive life, striving to bring holiness into every aspect of their lives, their diet, their dress, their speech, their treatment of the poor, the widow, the stranger. In everything they do, they will be mindful of the fact that they are living and acting in the presence of God. And God for His part promises to give them a land of their own, a proper showcase for their distinctive lifestyle.
The revelation at Mount Sinai came in two parts. First, the Ten Commandments were proclaimed publicly, in the hearing of all the people. Then Moses went up the mountain to be alone with God as God revealed to him several hundred additional laws by which He expected the Israelites to live.
What was the significance of the Ten Commandments, given the fact that earlier societies also deemed it wrong to murder, steal, lie under oath, or commit adultery? Two things make the revelation at Sinai distinctive and unprecedented. First, the opening words, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage,” established that these injunctions were not just a matter of practicality (what kind of world would it be if people were free to kill and steal?) but are the will of a God who had already introduced Himself into the lives of this particular people, demonstrating His concern for them by freeing them from oppression, and who was giving them these laws not to restrict their freedom (He reminds us that He is a God who stands for freedom) but out of love and concern for the content of their lives.
The serpent who said to Eve in the Garden of Eden, “Has not God said to you, You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” (Genesis 3:1) was the first in the long line of spokes- persons who would portray God as primarily interested in denying people their pleasures. Since then, many voices have followed the snake in posing a conflict between the allegedly “life-affirming” drive for pleasure, for food, wine, and sexual gratification without limits, and the “life-denying” killjoy voice of religion. Many people mistakenly include Sigmund Freud among those who advocate pursuing mental health by indulging, rather than repressing, our every instinct. (Freud would have been appalled at the thought.) In the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine, the villains are the Blue Meanies who are colored a dull, monochromatic blue and say No to every pleasure, in contrast to the brightly colored heroes who are unfettered by any inhibition. I know many Jews who see Judaism as nothing more than a lot of rules telling them what not to eat, when not to work, and whom not to marry, and at least as many Christians who see Christian morality as essentially condemning all sorts of normal behavior as sinful. That may be why God, before He utters a single commandment, identifies Himself as a liberator, telling the people, I am not forbidding murder, theft, and adultery in order to restrict your behavior and deny you pleasure. You may have left Egypt but you will never really be free until you learn to control your anger, your lust, and your greed. A man trying to stop smoking or drinking, a woman trying to lose weight, a married person embroiled in an extramarital affair would understand that message.
Second, other societies that outlawed murder, theft, and adultery did it on a case-law basis: If someone kills another person, the following is his punishment. If he kills a slave, this is his punishment. If he damages someone’s property, this is his punishment. The Ten Commandments introduce a word and a concept that have not been found in any earlier law code. That word is Don’t. There will be case-law passages later in Scripture telling the authorities how to deal with murder, theft, adultery, and perjury when they occur. But the message of the Ten Commandments goes beyond saying that those things are illegal and will be punished. It proclaims that they are wrong. Not “If you do . . .” but “Thou shalt not!” It tells us that there are moral laws built into the universe just as there are physical laws. People who disregard the Ten Commandments will cause themselves harm even as people who disregard the laws of gravity or a healthful lifestyle will.
The innovative concept of the Ten Commandments is the vision of the perfectibility of human nature. Codes of law by definition deal with misbehavior, with violations. No society passes a law that reads, “If a person tells the truth in court . . . ,” or “If someone respects his neighbor’s property . . .” Law codes, including those found in the Bible, anticipate that human beings will do things they should not do. But God, in the language of the Ten Commandments, proclaims that human misbehavior is not inevitable. God does not demand the impossible of us. He does not command people to go for more than a day without food and water. He does not tell us to go back in time and undo the wrong things we have done. If God tells us to spend the rest of our lives without murdering, stealing, or cheating, it must be possible for people to do so.
The revelation at Sinai, the unprecedented fashioning of a covenant between a people and its God based not just on exclusive worship and offerings but on righteous behavior, should have been the crowning moment of Moses’ life. But even here, Moses would discover that there are few moments of unalloyed happiness in a person’s life. Life will always be lived with other people, and other people can be unreliable, unpredictable, and easily distracted.