Excerpted from The Lord Is My Shepherd by Harold S. Kushner. Copyright © 2003 by Harold S. Kushner. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Harold S. Kushner is rabbi laureate of Temple Israel in the Boston suburb of Natick, Massachusetts. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he is the author of more than a dozen books on coping with life’s challenges, including, most recently, the best-selling Conquering Fear and Overcoming Life’s Disappointments.
A Conversation with Harold Kushner
Author of THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD
Q:You say you have been thinking about this book for years. Why did you decide to write it now? This is your first book post 9/11. Did that tragedy affect your writing it?
A:I have wondered for a long time why the 23d Psalm has the power it has to comfort us. But when, in the wake of 9/11, so many people were asking me “How could God let this happen?” the answer I found myself giving was “God’s promise was never that life would be fair. God’s promise was that, when we inevitably have to confront the unfairness of life, we would be able to do it because God would be with us.” I realized that when I said that, I was citing the 23d Psalm, “I will fear no evil for Thou art with me.”
Q:Why do you refer to that line as “the heart of the psalm?”
A:First, because we turn to this psalm essentially for comfort and reassurance in troubling times, and that line, which not coincidentally is the exact middle line of the psalm, is the line that more than any other provides the comfort and reassurance we crave. In my opinion, it offers us the Bible’s clearest and most succinct answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people, and it answers that question not by explaining evil but by assuring us that God is on our side and not on the side of the evil deed, the accident, the illness or the injury. It doesn’t say that there is no such thing as evil in the world. It doesn’t say that evil happens only to people who deserve it. It says that there is plenty of evil in the world, plenty of undeserved suffering, but that it shouldn’t scare you because God is on your side and not on the side of the evil.
Q:Who wrote the 23d Psalm?
A: I’m afraid we’ll never know that. It might have been King David, but we don’t really know . The concept of individual authorship was very different in ancient times. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an entire culture to write a great poem.
Q:You describe the psalm as “a drama in three acts.” How so?
A: In its opening verses, the mood is calm, serene, peaceful green pastures and still waters. Then abruptly all that sunshine turns into darkness. We’re not told why. It may have been serious illness, business failure, betrayal, but most likely it was the death of someone close to the author. He has to struggle to find his way through the darkness. That’s when references to God change from “He” to “Thou” as the author comes to understand that it was only with God’s help that he made it through the valley of the shadow of death. Then in the final verses, he describes the new, more mature relationship he has come to have with God, based not on God giving him everything he wants, but on God offering him an ongoing sense of closeness.
Q:You write “My version of the psalm’s second line would read ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall often want’.” What do you mean by that?
A:If wanting refers to wanting more money, more fame, a bigger house, then I hope God prevents me from wanting those things. But there is a sense in which I don’t want to outgrow longing. I want there to be things in my life I haven’t done yet and I look forward to achieving. I want to cherish a vision of a better world rather than settle for the world as it is.
Q:Is there one line that for you has the most impact both personally and theologically?
A:When I began writing this book, I probably would have cited the line about “the valley of the shadow of death.” But by the time I finished, I had gained a special feeling for the line “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” The Hebrew is even more emphatic: “surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.” I found the line saying to me that when it comes to my job, my marriage, my family, I have to work hard to get the results I want. I can’t rely on good intentions alone. But when it comes to “goodness and mercy,” feeling good about myself and feeling forgiven for my limitations, I can stop striving and just let those good things find me where I am.
Q:You write “There is a sense in which it is uncomfortable, even intimidating to live our days conscious of the fact that we are living them in God’s presence.” Why would God’s presence make some people feel uncomfortable?
A:It depends on how you feel about yourself. One of the defining characteristics of a human being is that we feel held accountable for what we do. In some religious traditions, we are even accountable for what we think, what we fantasize about. To be human is to realize that we are subject to God’s judgment. If you feel good about who you are, you’re like the child who calls to his parents to come and see what he can do. If you’re not that happy with who you are, you’re more like the adolescent who tells his parents “will you just get off my back and leave me alone!”
Q:You describe gratitude as “the fundamental religious emotion.” Why is it so hard for many people to cultivate the habit of gratitude?
A:Gratitude is more than remembering to mumble “thank you” when someone gives you something. It is a way of looking at the world so that we recognize the things in our lives as gifts we might just as easily not have been given. It asks us to see the “givens” in our lives – our looks, our talents, our family – as gifts, and even if we might have wished for a fancier or more expensive gift, it is rude not to express appreciation for the gifts we have. When the psalmist, a man who has known the “valley of the shadow,” writes “my cup runneth over,” he is saying that he has learned to be grateful for what he has rather than lamenting what he may have lost or missed out on.
Why can’t more people feel grateful for what they have? Some people feel so entitled to the best that they are disappointed by anything less. Others find it hard to say “thank you” because it makes them feel passive, dependent, to be on the receiving end rather than the giving end.
1. Kushner notes that his understanding of God is “first and foremost an issue of morality, that there is only one God and that He demands righteous behavior.” But his congregants’ understanding of God was different from his: “their souls craved a God who would make them feel safe” [p. 16]. There is, in most people’s spiritual lives, a primitive need for a feeling of security. According to Kushner’s discussion, how does the psalm respond to this need?
2. Kushner writes that he began this book in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. At that time, he says, many people asked how God could have let such a horrendous event happen. But Kushner argues that “God does not, God cannot promise us happy endings in a world where laws of nature and human cruelty take their daily toll. God’s promise is not that we will be safe, but that we will never be alone” [p. 26]. To what extent does this argument provide comfort?
3. In his discussion of the particular pain suffered by those who have lost a child, Kushner suggests that “parents honor their child’s memory best not by saying ‘I’ll never get over it’ but by living those ‘inherited’ years”—the years the child didn’t get to live—“as fully and as meaningfully as possible” [p. 97]. What is insightful about this approach?
4. The psalm’s words, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” imply that one will eventually emerge from this place of darkness. Yet Kushner points out that some people are unable to move beyond; they remain depressed, unable or unwilling to leave a state of bereavement [pp. 94–95]. Why do some people remain this way while others are able to go on with their lives?
5. Kushner suggests that in choosing to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve chose the gift of moral conscience over that of eternal life. He says, “We cheat death, not by living forever, but by bearing, raising, and educating children to keep our souls, our values, and even our names alive. One generation, scarred and often embittered by experience, gives way to another, born in innocence and hope” [p. 23]. Kushner’s way of thinking involves making insightful connections between religious texts and real life. How does his way of writing—or his authorial voice—assure readers that he offers convincing and pragmatic guidance in life’s difficulties?
6. The line “I shall not want,” Kushner says, means “I shall lack for nothing” [p. 29]. But he also discusses the problem of wanting—desiring what we don’t have, or desiring things to be other than they are. Kushner says his version of the second line would read, “I shall often want. . . . But I will never feel deprived or diminished if I don’t get what I yearn for, because I know how blessed I am by what I have” [p. 36]. Discuss his approach to yearning and to one’s sense of gratitude.
7. What does Kushner mean in his interpretation of the phrase “He restores my soul”? Why is it so important to remember that one’s soul often does need restoration, care, and rest? What happens to people whose souls are depleted? Why do the words of Isaiah 40:31 mean so much to Kushner and his wife and daughter [p. 68]?
8. Consider the story Kushner tells of how theologian Martin Buber came to his principle of “I and Thou” [pp. 80–81]. What is the ethical basis of the “I-Thou” relationship, and how does it relate, for Kushner, to the relationship between God and human beings?
9. Kushner writes, “God has no ego” [p. 82]. How does he reconcile this idea with the line, “He guides me in straight paths for His Name’s sake” [pp. 74–77, 84]?
10. What difference does translation make in the words of a Biblical text like this psalm? Consider the varying interpretations of the Hebrew words tzalamut, tzal mavet, and the widely known phrase from the King James Bible “the shadow of death” [pp. 86–87]. How does Kushner understand the metaphorical implications of the original and translated words, and how does he expand the image they project into a philosophical discussion of death and its presence in the world?
11. According to Kushner, how should the knowledge of inevitable death affect how we live our lives? How difficult is it for people to believe, as Kushner does, that God shares human pain, and is with us at the moment of death [pp. 98–99]?
12. Consider Kushner’s discussion of the line, “I will fear no evil” [pp. 102–3], and the role faith plays in our ability to survive life’s problems. Why is the idea of community, as well as having faith in one’s personal partnership with God, so important to Kushner’s reading of the psalm?
13. How have terrorist actions of recent years, like the Oklahoma City bombing or the events of September 11, 2001, changed people’s understanding of evil in the world? How convincing is Kushner’s suggestion that it is better to respond to horrific events with compassionate action than with questions about why God allowed such events to occur [pp. 110–11]?
14. Discuss Kushner’s reading of the line, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” How does he avoid the unattractive ways in which this line might be interpreted [pp. 126–34]?
15. Kushner writes, “Gratitude, I would suggest, is the fundamental religious emotion. It is where religion begins in the human heart” [p. 145]. Why, in his view, is the emotion of gratitude so powerful?
16. The Lord Is My Shepherd offers itself to us as an aid to everyday life. Which insights or words of advice are most surprising, most persuasive, most profound, or most useful to keep in mind on a daily basis?
17. Kushner opens the book with a question: “Can fifteen beautiful lines from a single page of the Bible change your life?” [p. 5] If you were familiar with the Twenty-third Psalm before reading this book, how have your thoughts about the psalm—or about your life—been altered by what you have read? Reread the opening paragraph after finishing the book. Does it seem that Kushner is right in his claims for the power of the psalm?