Feiler says Moses was ‘America’s Prophet’

According to author Bruce Feiler, Moses and the Exodus provided much of the inspiration for nearly every key event in the evolution of the United States, from the deeply religious Mayflower Pilgrims who saw their journey as similar to the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egyptian bondage, to Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, who in his last speech said that he “may not get to the Promised Land” of equality and freedom.

“For 400 years, one figure inspired more Americans than any other,” Feiler writes. “His name is Moses.” As evidence to support his conclusion about the central role of Moses and his journey as the key metaphor for the American experience, Feiler notes that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (neither of them overly “religious” men) proposed that Moses appear on the Great Seal of the United States. He also says both the Statue of Liberty and the immortal comic book icon Superman were “molded in the image” of Moses. “Martin Luther King invoked him the night before he died, Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama frequently cited Moses as inspiration for their words and goals,” he adds.

Feiler, whose books Abraham, Walking the Bible and Where God was Born were New York Times best-sellers, makes a return appearance to the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4 to discuss his new book, America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story (Morrow, $26.99). He describes Moses as the greatest Prophet in the Jewish narrative and as America’s true “Spiritual Founder.”

As was the case with Walking the Bible, in which Feiler literally re-traces the journey of the ancient Israelites as described in the Bible, the author takes a “tactile” and on-site approach to his research for the current book. He visits the very island where the Mayflower Pilgrims spent their first Sabbath. He climbs the bell tower where the Liberty Bell was inscribed with a quote from Moses in Leviticus: “Proclaim Liberty throughout the Land and to all the citizens thereof.” He retraces the route of the Underground Railroad, the escape route for American slaves, where the spiritual song, “Go Down Moses” became their national anthem. He even puts on the robe Charlton Heston wore in the 1956 Cecile B. DeMille film, The Ten Commandments.

“Even a cursory review of American history indicates that Moses has emboldened leaders of all stripes: Patriot and loyalist, slave and master, Jew and Christian. Could the persistence of his story serve as a reminder of our shared national values? Could he serve as a unifying force in a disunifying time? If Moses could split the Red Sea, could he unsplit America?” observes Feiler.

In one of many pivotal events in American history cited by Feiler, the Constitutional Convention to “form a more perfect union” provided many opportunities to look to the story of Moses the lawgiver as an inspiration. “For many Bible lovers, the Exodus appeared to provide direction” to the proceedings, Feiler writes. “As the story of the Israelites in the desert suggested, maybe the way to secure freedom was to give up some freedom. Maybe what they needed was a firm leader and a firm law” to replace the weak and looser Articles of Confederation.

“Maybe, one Boston preacher said, the United States needed a national charter that would leave a glow upon the nation like that ‘upon the face of Moses when he came down from the holy mountain with the tables of the Hebrew Constitution in his hand!'” Feiler observes, “And so the narrative resumed. The Constitutional Convention would play the part of Mount Sinai — and Washington would be Moses.”

The careers of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, cut short by death before they could reach their respective “Promised Lands” offer numerous spot-on comparisons to Moses.

In the case of Abraham Lincoln, he was assassinated after victory in the Civil War was achieved, but before the “Promised Land” of reconciliation, “with malice towards none; with charity towards all” could be attained. His successor, the weak and almost removed Andrew Johnson could not carry forward his vision. Franklin D. Roosevelt died of a stroke on April 12, 1945, one month before VE Day, when Nazi Germany would unconditionally surrender to the victorious Allies. Harry S. Truman, the Man from Missouri, of whom little was at first suggested, ended up emerging as a strong successor, making painful decisions on the use of the atomic bomb to end the war with Japan. He also recognized the State of Israel, the modern successor to the ancient Land of Israel to the edge of which Moses led our people.

And John F. Kennedy, the dynamic and inspirational young president, murdered by an assassin on Nov. 22, 1963 in Dallas, was succeeded by Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ was a worthy “Joshua” to JFK’s “Moses,” attaining passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and nearly the entire civil rights agenda of his predecessor.

Sadly, the war in Vietnam would greatly diminish his overall standing as president. But Johnson’s record in the area of civil rights, and the more recently revealed role he played as a Congressman helping Jews to escape from the Nazi Holocaust and his behind the scenes role in the 1967 Six-Day War, have restored much of his luster.

According to the Hebrew Bible, Moses died at the age of 120, on the very edge of the Land of Israel. He was not allowed to enter the “Promised Land,” but was given an opportunity to gaze upon Israel just before he died. Moses, the greatest of Prophets had disobeyed God when he struck a rock to bring forth water instead of speaking to it. It was a rare act of anger on the part of Moses who is remembered in Scripture not for his power, but for having been “the most humble man who ever walked the face of the earth.”

Bruce Feiler has woven together the story of Moses and the Exodus with the full sweep of the history of the United States in his distinctive narrative style. America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story is both solid history and a volume that can help a sometimes jaded American public “summon the verities” and appreciate just how special and exceptional the American experience really is. And we as Jews can take considerable pride, or should we say, “shep nachas” that Moshe Rabenu, Moses Our Teacher, played such a central role in shaping our narrative of Freedom and Hope.

Bruce Feiler

WHO: Author of ‘American Prophet: Moses and the American Story’

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday,

Nov. 4

WHERE: The JCC Staenberg Family Complex in Creve Coeur

HOW MUCH: $16 or free with series ticket ($60)

TICKETS: 314-442-3299 or www.brownpapertickets.com