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New column: Moses, fear and the Texas Book Festival

October 25, 2009

New column advances next weekend’s Texas Book Festival talks by Bruce Feiler and Rabbi Harold Kushner. I’m not sure what the headline writer meant by “two rabbis,” but I had another fire to put out with this column when it went online (a missing info box with the event date). *Sigh*

Two rabbis, two authors, two books: Harold S. Kushner and Bruce Feiler come to Austin for Texas Book Festival

Saturday, October 24, 2009

You can’t tell the Moses story without talking about fear and uncertainty. And you can’t write about fear and uncertainty without invoking Moses (especially if you’re a rabbi). Which is why these new books make such a nice pairing: “America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story” by best-selling author Bruce Feiler and “Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World” by Harold S. Kushner, a Massachusetts rabbi best known for penning “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”

The two authors will speak back-to-back Sunday evening at the Dell Jewish Community Center as part of the Texas Book Festival.

Kushner’s confrontation of the uncertain (post-9/11, post-recession) world speaks to our current anxieties and unease. But he could have easily marketed this book to the ancient Israelites.

Fear and uncertainty, after all, were part of the very origins of Moses, an infant hidden among the river reeds so he wouldn’t be killed by Pharaoh. And these themes persist in the Exodus story when God asks Moses to liberate his people from slavery in Egypt and later when the Egyptians are bearing down on the fleeing Hebrews who, according to the Bible, are able to escape thanks to a divinely parted sea. One can just imagine the fear and uncertainty that gripped these people during their 40 years in the desert with the Promised Land just out of reach.

This doesn’t just make great drama for the annual Passover seder, Feiler informs us in his exhaustively researched book. This Moses story inspires people to undertake risky voyages — whether on the Mayflower or the Underground Railroad — to find freedom, to reach their own Promised Land, whether actual or symbolic.

Moses looms large in our country’s narrative. He appears again and again in the prayers of the Pilgrims, in speeches of Washington, on the Liberty Bell, in the rallying cries for freedom among black slaves and the cries for justice among Civil Rights activists a century later, in the Cecil B. DeMille film “The Ten Commandments” that we watch faithfully every Easter and in the imaginations of immigrants who risk their lives to find a better life in America. Moses is deeply ingrained in the American consciousness, Feiler writes, whether we realize it or not.

“At the start of my journey, I knew I would find the themes of Moses’ life in key moments in America’s past. But I did not anticipate the depth, breadth, and intensity of America’s attachment to the Exodus. … And I was inspired that nearly every defining American leader — from Washington to Lincoln to Reagan — invoked the Moses story in times of crisis. From Christopher Columbus to Martin Luther King, from the age of Gutenberg to the era of Google, Moses helped shape the American dream. He is our true founding father. His face belongs on Mount Rushmore.”

Fittingly, Kushner pops up in “America’s Prophet.” While in Boston, Feiler interviewed the Natick, Mass., rabbi, who talked about Moses as a beacon for immigrants who imagine America as the Promised Land and for a new generation of Americans who must redefine success given the likelihood that they will not outdo their parents financially.

Feiler asks Kushner what he should tell his own daughters about the central lesson of Moses. The rabbi responds, “That in every generation, there are forces, individual and collective, that try to inhibit our human fulfillment. And in every generation, God acts as the impulse to strike out for freedom, even though the path to freedom is not always easy. But in the end, the burden is on each of us to finish the journey.”

For Kushner, that journey must be made with the community. You don’t go it alone.

Kushner’s encouragement to overcome fear comes at a critical time. The “uncertain world” of his subtitle seems to have people quaking in their boots. Will the economy improve? Will I find another job? Will the war end? Where are we headed?

As a rabbi, he knows well the power of community still holds. Toward the end of “Conquering Fear,” Kushner invokes Psalm 27, which begins, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”

Kushner knows that in a variety of frightening situations, the question might arise, “But what if experience has taught a person that the world is not always safe?”

His answer: “That is when for us, as for the author of the Twenty-seventh Psalm, we find God in the sudden influx of strength we often feel as we confront the things that frighten us. We say to ourselves, I’m not sure I can do this. And God whispers to us, Yes, you can, because you don’t have to do it alone. I will be with you; other people will be with you to help you through.”

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