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'Human' Moses Offers Much to Teach About Life's Disappointments

September 21, 2006 By:
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Rabbi Harold S. Kushner Photo courtesy of Ariel Kushner Haber

Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, author of the classic When Bad Things Happen to Good People, as well as nine other books, has just published his newest work, Overcoming Life's Disappointments. It draws on the story of Moses, and weaves together references to social science and popular culture with the explicit purpose of helping people deal with the personal setbacks that we all experience. Kushner, 71, who lives with his wife in Natick, Mass., gave a lecture at the main branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia on Sept. 14; earlier that day, he stopped by the offices of the Jewish Exponent, where this conversation took place.

Rabbi Harold S. Kushner
Photo courtesy of Ariel Kushner Haber

Q:Where did you get the idea to write a book on what we all can learn from the life of Moses?

A:"At one level, Moses is special. But part of what I wanted to do was introduce people to his human side. If you only see Moses the triumphant -- the man who splits the sea and brings down the plagues, the Moses who talks to God -- then there's nothing you can learn from Moses.

"But when you see Moses as a man who has to deal with a great deal of frustration in his life, who is the leader of a people who constantly complain and who has a very complicated family life, that's something different. If you read between the lines, you see that he probably has a difficult relationship with his wife, has very little relationship with his children, and has a very complicated relationship with his brother Aaron.

"In essence, you see how, at the end, Moses has to deal with the fact that all these people who made his life miserable for 40 years are going to get into the promised land -- and he's the only one who won't.

"Only then, I think, can you empathize with Moses. You can learn from him how to look back at what you've missed out on in life without feeling embittered and cheated."

What is it that keeps you writing?

"I write every book on the assumption that it will be my last. I don't assume I'll come up with more ideas.

"Basically, I'm a teacher. I like to communicate. That's why I'm one of those rare authors who enjoys going on tour. Most of my colleagues dread it. When I speak to an audience, I know I'm getting across to them -- that they understand something that they didn't think of in quite the same way before."

The word "rabbi" does not appear on the book's cover, and the description on the jacket copy refers to the Old Testament and not the Hebrew bible. Why?

"To not put off the 98 percent of Americans who are not Jews. I wouldn't want them to think it's only a book for Jews. Based on the letters I get, 80 percent of my readers are non-Jews."

You wrote in your new book that, "For the most part, men's dreams center on success in business, women's dreams on fulfilling relationships." Is that an old-fashioned way of thinking?

"Maybe it is, I don't know.

"I still find that medical records indicate that women will be hospitalized for depression because of a loss, a death, a rejection, divorce, while men will be hospitalized because their business failed or they lost their job.

"I think we are separately hard-wired, men and women, to find our primary emotional investment in different areas.

"Women are much more concerned with not hurting the feelings of the person they're talking to, and men are much more concerned with one-upping the person they are talking to."

What do you see as the biggest issue confronting the American Jewish community today?

"It's interesting. I'm seeing a lot of hopeful signs. In the same way that I've had to adjust to a new world in terms of technology, I'm adjusting to a new world in terms of multiple variants of how to be Jewish.

"It's no longer only Orthodox, Conservative, Reform. You have a lot of different ways, because a lot of people are finding their own way of being Jewish. And I think that's healthy. It's a challenge for someone who graduated from rabbinical school 46 years ago, but I think it means people are having their needs met.

"The biggest problem I think is that we are an aging community and our numbers -- relative numbers and actual numbers -- are going down. Nobody believes that we are less than 2 percent of the American population.

"But at what point are there too few Jews to be a viable community? At what point will there be too few Jews to have any influence on public policy? That and the aging of the Jewish population, I think, are ominous signs.

"There are two things I would recommend. I think if the community would make it cheaper to give children a good education, Jewish families would have more children.

"And two, we should get over our squeamishness and encourage intermarried families -- the non-Jewish member -- to become Jewish. Becoming Jewish is a lot more attractive than it used to be." 

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