Friday, January 8, 2016

Parashat Va'ara and Speaking Up

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion opens with God reminding Moses of the important task ahead of them: redemption. Moses speaks to the people of Israel, but they do not listen to him, as Pharaoh did not listen to him when Moses stood before him in the last parasha. God, seeing that the people of Israel are not ready to hear the message of redemption while they are so oppressed and exhausted by their workload, tells Moses to go back to Pharaoh and tell him that God has commanded that Pharaoh let the people go. Moses responds, “Behold the people of Israel have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?”
            The plain meaning, the most immediate and obvious explanation, of this protestation, is that Moses is pointing out that the people of Israel should want to be liberated. If they, who have reason to listen to a promise of redemption, who have something to gain from believing Moses, aren’t interested, why should Pharaoh, whose interests are put most in danger by this news, listen to Moses? There’s something to be said about speaking truth to power, and not placing the blame on those who fear being let down, but it’s also completely understandable that Moses holds this fear.
            However, he doesn’t stop with that comparison. That alone is not his main reason for believing he should not or cannot speak to Pharaoh, as he feels the need to add on the comment about his obstructed lips. Several times throughout the beginning stages of the Exodus narrative, Moses fears he will be an inadequate speaker for the task at hand. A rather well known legend, appearing in Shemot Rabbah, as well as recorded in the ancient historian Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities, and even mentioned in Freud's Moses and Monotheism, explains Moses’s speech impediment as the result of a cruel test put to infant Moses by a fearful Pharaoh. Moses had taken the crown off Pharaoh’s head and crowned himself with it and Pharaoh worried that it might be a sign of baby Moses’s precocious desire to overthrow Pharaoh and rule over the Egyptian people. The angel Gabriel, disguised as a court sage, suggested that Pharaoh put before the baby an onyx stone and a burning coal. If the baby reached for the coal, it would prove that he just liked shiny objects and the self-crowning moment meant nothing. If he reached for the precious stone, it would prove that Moses was indeed destined to overthrow Pharaoh, and Pharaoh would be advised to kill the baby now. Moses, being precocious and destined to be the demise of Pharaoh, started to reach for the onyx stone, but the angel caused him to grab the coal instead. The baby put his burning hand into his mouth to cool it, burning his mouth as well.
The scar was left on his mouth forever, a constant reminder of the first time Pharaoh tried to destroy Moses for being powerful. This is one possible explanation for Moses’s reluctance to play the part of prophet and redeemer. Not only is his speech physically impeded, he is afraid to try to show himself to be too formidable a foe, having already escaped near infanticide for his precociousness. The great rabbi and biblical commentator, Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, points out that when Moses complained he could not be the right choice to speak for God, he never asked that his speech impediment should be healed. He does not want to be healed; he does not want to speak for God. It is not his lips alone that hinder him, but his fear.
The Sefat Emeth, a Hasidic work of Torah commentary, suggests that perhaps Moses felt afraid to speak specifically because thus far no one has listened: “Because they would not listen, therefore I am of uncircumcised lips.” The Psalmist says, “Listen, my people, that I may speak.” One who has none listening may as well not talk, according to this reading. Each way of looking at the situation, whether Moses feels afraid to speak because his lips are impeded or his lips feel impeded because his speech has been disregarded, whether the physical scar in his mouth keeps him from speaking or the emotional scar of having escaped near death for being important, his reluctance to keep trying is an act of self-preservation, and as Ani DiFranco sings, “Self-preservation is a full-time occupation; I’m determined to survive on this shore.”
But the next line in that Ani song is, “You know I don’t avert my eyes anymore.” Because while self-preservation is extremely important, and we can all probably empathize a bit with Moses’s reluctance to put himself out there, ultimately if it comes at the cost of self-expression, then what exactly are we preserving? Moses’s reluctance to serve God in the manner he was selected angers God. Midrash HaGadol offers a few possible responses to Moses’s protestations:
“Rav Yehuda said: God said to Moses, ‘I am master of the universe, I am full of compassion, I am reliable in paying reward, My children are enslaved by human beings – and you say to Me, Send by whose hand You will send?!’ Rav Nehemia said: God said to Moses, ‘The anguish of My children in Egypt is revealed and known to Me... My children dwell in anguish and you dwell at ease, and I seek to set them free from Egypt – and you saw to Me, Send by whose hand You will send?!’”
Both midrashic twists by each of these rabbis suggest a similar sense of incredulity from God. Whatever his fears or disabilities, Moses has been hand-picked by God to do this hugely important task that will not only serve God, but free an entire race of oppressed people, and Moses has the audacity to say, “No thanks”? Gaston Bachelard, a French philosopher, said in his book Water and Dreams, “What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak … it was born in the moments when we accumulated silent things within us. The brook will nonetheless teach you to speak, in spite of sorrows and memories, it will teach you euphoria through euphemism, energy through the poem. It will repeat incessantly some beautiful, round word which rolls over rocks.” The continuation of the passage of Midrash HaGadol quoted above, finishes with a suggestion that Moses’s reluctance to do this task was the first and real reason he was not allowed into the Holy Land. How much suffering did he bring upon himself by trying to keep silent? How much extra suffering did he cause the Israelites by dragging his feet and not rallying himself and them sooner? How much suffering do each of us cause ourselves by not speaking about things which are important to us because we are afraid we will say them imperfectly or no one will hear us or others’ perceptions of us will change as a result of speaking out?

There are times when it is reasonable to want to keep quiet as an act of self-preservation. But if we are always focusing on self-preservation and making ourselves as small and quiet as possible so as not to expose ourselves to potential harm, we will never fully live. Moses eventually finds his voice. While he relies on Aaron as his mouthpiece for Pharaoh, he rallies himself up and does what God asks of him, and eventually is able to speak with great confidence to the people of Israel. For a guy who complains he is slow of speech and heavy of tongue, the later books of the Torah sure are filled with him yapping. May we all find that confidence, our voices, the ability to speak out for what is importance, no matter how long we remained silent before. May the brook teach us how to babble, may we find euphoria in euphemisms, may we stop averting our eyes and hiding from ourselves. May we survive and thrive, and in that way better serve ourselves, God, and our fellow humans. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

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