Friday, January 11, 2013

Parashat Va’era

            For a man who claims to hate to talk, Moses seems to talk a lot about his speech impediment. In this week’s Torah portion, he calls himself a man “of impeded speech” twice in the same chapter. In last week’s Torah portion, as well, he claims he cannot be the messenger G-d seeks, since he “has never been a man of words … [and is] slow of speech and slow of tongue.” G-d reassured Moses then that his brother Aaron will serve as his mouthpiece and together they will free the Israelites. Yet, still, in this week’s parasha, Moses is still harping on about his speech impediment.
            However, as the parasha goes on, it seems that Moses ends up doing most of the talking. Aaron spoke to the Israelite people for Moses in the beginning of this adventure, and in several places the Torah says that “Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh” or “they spoke to Pharaoh,” making it not completely evident who is actually speaking. But by chapter eight in the book of Exodus, the text clearly says, “Moses said to Pharaoh,” and throughout this week’s parasha, we never once see Aaron speaking. G-d keeps telling Moses to instruct Aaron to hold out his rod or strike his rod to bring about each sign of G-d’s might, each plague. Aaron seems to be more of Moses’s magician than mouthpiece.
            Moses was extraordinary in spite of his disability, or more accurately, in spite of how he viewed his handicap. There is an often-cited Midrash explaining how Moses came to be slow of speech and tongue. As a baby in Pharaoh’s palace, he liked to play with Pharaoh’s jewels and crowns. Pharaoh was afraid this was an omen that Moses would one day usurp his crown and kingdom. So his advisors proposed a test to determine the baby’s fate: put the crown and a hot coal both in front of the baby and see which he grabbed for. If he grabbed the crown, it was a sign that he would grow up to overthrow the king, and should be killed or cast out. If he grabbed the coal, he was just a regular baby. G-d guided Moses’s hand to the coal, to ensure that he would live, and the baby popped the coal into his mouth. Although, he spit it back out immediately, his mouth was permanently burned, and he would always have trouble speaking clearly. However, since this is Midrash, we don’t actually know how bad Moses’s speech impediment might have been, how long he lived with it, or how he came to develop it. Even if we were to accept the Midrash as cannon, we still don’t know how it might have impacted him growing up. If the other Egyptian kids teased him for it, if he developed low self-esteem, if he avoided speaking his whole life out of embarrassment of what he might have sounded like.
            Everyone has something they’re embarrassed of in their lives. Something they avoid doing, at least for a time, because others made them feel bad about it. For someone, it might be he refused to dance in public because someone he had a crush on made fun of his dancing. For another, it might be she was afraid to sing loudly because a music teacher once told her she shouldn’t sing with her friends who were much better than her. Even if Moses didn’t have that complex, maybe he just felt self-conscious of showing off how great a speaker he really was, and wanted to sound modest. Many people are afraid to show how smart or strong they are, or how much they enjoy bettering themselves. People are afraid of looking over-zealous about anything, afraid that others will demean their efforts, or envy and resent their achievements. People are afraid to be too different from those around them. We are all told that each of us is a special snowflake, and it’s true. We are all so different already, that to distinguish ourselves any more is intimidating. If we make ourselves too visible, how will our peers view us?
            But Moses gets over it, and so can all of us. It takes time to develop that much maturity and confidence, but it’s possible, and it’s important. Everyone is their own person. Everyone is exactly who they are meant to be. We are all made in the image of G-d, and so our personality quirks are all, in some way, Divine. Kate Bornstein said it best when she spoke at my college orientation, stating that as long as you are not hurting yourself or others, you should absolutely feel free to be exactly who you are. Best advice I ever heard. You should say it loud and proud. You should speak out with that speech impediment. You never know who is listening, or how far your words may take you, and others close to you. May we all learn to speak out, as Moses did, shed our self-consciousness, and free ourselves. 

No comments: