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Overcoming Life's Disappointments
By Harold S. Kushner
Random House Harold S. Kushner
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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. Mostbiographies, 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.
Excerpted from Overcoming Life's Disappointments by Harold S. Kushner Excerpted by permission.
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