Overcoming Life's Disappointments
By Rabbi Harold S. Kushner
When I ponder the greatness of Moses, the first word that conies to mind is perseverance, perseverance in the face of frequent criticism, dedication born of keeping his mind constantly focused on the presence and the promise of the God who summoned him and assured him that He would be with him.
One of my favorite stories tells of the prominent rabbi who ran into a member of his congregation in the street one day and said to him, "I haven't seen you in synagogue the past few weeks. Is everything all right?" The man answered, "Everything is fine, but I've been worshipping at a small synagogue on the other side of town." The rabbi responded, "I'm really surprised to hear that. I know the rabbi of that congregation. He's a nice enough fellow, but he's not the scholar that I am. He's not the preacher that I am. He's not the communal leader that I am. What can you possibly get from leaving my synagogue to worship at his?" The congregant replied, "That's all very true, but he has other qualities. For example, he can read minds, and he's teaching me how to read minds. I'll show you. Think of something. Concentrate on it. I'll read your mind and tell you what you were thinking of." The rabbi concentrated for a few moments and the congregant ventured, "You're thinking of the verse from the Psalms, I have set the Lord before me at all times'" (Psalms 16:8). The rabbi exclaimed, "Ha, you're wrong! I wasn't thinking about that at all," to which the congregant responded, "Yes, I know you weren't, and that's why I don't worship with you anymore."
What special wisdom, what special strength did Moses possess that enabled him to be an effective leader of an unappreciative people? Part of Moses* genius, part of what made him the effective leader and inspiring human being that he was, permitting him to retain his enthusiasm and his sanity in spite of everything, was that he remembered for whom he was working. He set the presence of God before him at all times. He believed in God's promise to be with him, and that made a difference.
When I think of all the things that made Moses great, it is impressive to realize what Moses could do in a single day, like confronting Pharaoh or splitting the Red Sea to lead the Israelites across. I am equally impressed by what he could do over the course of several weeks: calling down ten plagues on the Egyptians, spending forty days on the mountaintop receiving God's word. But more than anything else, I am impressed by what he could do day after day for forty years, serving as the leader of a people who, more often than not, did not want to be led and complained about the life into which he had led them. They hated the conditions of their wandering. They were troubled by the uncertainty of what lay ahead for them and their children, never quite believing they were capable of conquering and settling the Promised Land. And beneath it all, I suspect, they resented all the laws that Moses had imposed on them, telling them what they could and could not do, what they had to share with their neighbors and what they had to give back to God.
As we recall, Moses' problem started on his second day of involvement with his people. On the first day, he intervened to save a Hebrew slave who was being beaten by an Egyptian taskmaster, striking and killing the Egyptian. A day later, he intervened to break up a fight between two Hebrews, only to be told by the instigator, "Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?" As suggested in the previous chapter, it may be that the instigator was the same man Moses had intervened to help a day earlier; how else would the deed, done privately with no one else around, have become known overnight? And psychologically that makes sense. Psychologist Dr. Levi Meier, writing out of what must have been a painful professional experience, comments in Moses, the Prince, the Prophet: "It should not surprise us that those whom we help sometimes turn on us. We help them at a time when they are most vulnerable, needy or embarrassed." People have often come to me for counseling, sharing embarrassing secrets about themselves-drug use, embezzlement, extramarital affairs. In those instances, one would have expected them to be grateful to me for trying to help them, but I often got the feeling when we met subsequently that they were uncomfortable in my presence. It may be that they were embarrassed because they knew I shared a shameful secret about them and seeing me reminded them of that, and reminded them of something they didn't like about themselves. Perhaps they suspected that I thought less of them because I knew it. (I'm too aware of human frailty to have let that happen. If anything, I thought more of them for wanting to face up to what they had done and for trying to change.) Or it may be that it is hard for a lot of people, especially men, to ask for help and appreciate being helped. It makes them feel incompetent.
Moses' career as a leader began with an act of helpfulness that was met with resentment rather than gratitude, and continued in that vein for the entire forty years of his leadership. He led the people from slavery to freedom; they complained that freedom was too demanding, too unpredictable. He fed them in the wilderness; they complained that the food was monotonous. At one point, they nostalgically recalled what they were fed as slaves: "We remember the fish we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and garlic" (Numbers 11:5). What were they saying when they spoke of eating free? Did they mean only that the taskmasters provided them with meals as they worked and did not charge them for it? Or as one commentator suggests, did they mean "free of having to decide anything, having to make choices," even as prisoners often find themselves overwhelmed by choices when they emerge from years of confinement (or, for that matter, as everyday shoppers find themselves overwhelmed when presented with more than four or five alternatives)?
Where did Moses get the strength of soul to overcome these frustrations and continue to serve as a leader? The story is told of a rabbi who had had such a busy week that he never got around to visiting sick members of his congregation in the hospital. As a result, he had to cancel a planned Sunday afternoon family outing in order to make his hospital visits. After an hour, he left the hospital feeling that he had wasted his time. Two of the people he had come to see had been discharged the previous afternoon (and were probably angry at him for not having come to see them earlier). Two more were sleeping and he hesitated to wake them. Another had a roomful of visitors and saw the rabbi s presence as an intrusion. And the last patient he visited spent twenty minutes complaining about her aches and pains and previous afflictions and cited them as the reasons she could no longer believe in God or the value of prayer. The rabbi could not help thinking of all the ways he would rather have spent that hour. Walking back to the parking lot unhappy with the demands of his job and feeling resentful, he passed an office building with a security guard in front. The guard wished him a good afternoon, which prompted the rabbi to stop and say to him, "It's Sunday. The building is closed and empty. Why are you standing here?" The guard answered. "I'm hired to make sure nobody breaks in to steal or vandalize anything. But what are you doing here in a suit and tie on a Sunday afternoon? Who do you work for?"
The rabbi was about to tell the guard the name of his congregation when he paused, reached into his pocket for a business card, and said, "Here's my name and phone number. I'll pay you five dollars a week to call me every Monday morning and ask me that question: Remind me to ask myself. Who do I work for?"