Vayedaber Moshe lifnay YHVH leimor: “Hen B’nai Yisrael lo sham’u eilai v’eich yishm’eini Phar’o, va’ani arel sfatayim!”
And Moses spoke to YHVH, saying: “Look, the Children of Israel would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh listen to me – me, a man of impeded speech!” (Exodus 6:12)
Moses, the reluctant prophet, has returned to his home in Egypt with a seemingly impossible mission. Raised as a prince in Pharaoh’s palace, he had run away many years before and become a shepherd in Midian. In a life-altering encounter in the wilderness, Moses has a vision of a burning bush, and hears a call from the very heart of existence: “I am YHVH, Life Unfolding, Being Itself. I have seen the suffering of the slaves in Egypt and I know their pain. This is not the purpose for which I created human beings. I will be with you. Go to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go!”
Moses demurs, thinking of every possible reason that would disqualify him from this mission, but there is no turning back. Moses makes his way to the royal palace and informs Pharaoh that YHVH, the Source of all Being, insists that Pharaoh let the people go. Pharaoh famously replies, “Who is YHVH that I should listen to that voice and let Israel go? I do not know YHVH, nor will I let Israel go.” (Ex. 5:2)
In response to this threat, Pharaoh doubles the labors of the slaves, and adds both backbreaking and morale-breaking measures to their daily toil.
As we enter this week’s portion, YHVH again gives Moses a message of great hope, and charges Moses to relay this message to the slaves: “I am YHVH, Life Unfolding, and I will free you from bondage, and deliver you, and rescue you, and be with you, and you will know Me, YHVH, Life Unfolding, the unquenchable Source of Liberation, and I will be your God.” (Paraphrased from Ex. 6:6-8)
But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they could not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage (Ex.6:9)
Neither Pharaoh nor the Israelites have accepted Moses’ message. In fact, things have gotten worse since Moses showed up! YHVH then instructs Moses to once again speak to Pharaoh. Moses is beside himself, and says, “Look, the Children of Israel would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh listen to me – me, a man of impeded speech!” (Ex. 6:12)
Our story has reached an impasse. Moses carries a message of liberation and hope. Pharaoh will not, perhaps cannot listen – why should he, when he is the beneficiary of the status quo? The slaves will not, perhaps cannot listen – they are kotzer ruach, which can either mean “short of breath” or “of crushed spirit.” Moses is stymied. No one seems capable of hearing his message.
The Hebrew describes Moses as arel sfatayim. In the case of circumcision, arel means “foreskin”. Here, it means that Moses has a foreskin, that is, a sheath over his lips. He is unable to speak. We know from earlier in the narrative that Moses claims to be “slow of speech”, but the Torah is trying to say something much more profound than that Moses suffers from a stutter.
The Hasidic master the Sfat Emet guides us into a deeper explanation for Moses’ “speech impediment.” The Sfat Emet reads Moses’ complaint to God as, “because neither Pharaoh nor the Children of Israel will listen, therefore I am unable to speak.” In other words, it is not the speaker who offers speech, it is the listener who elicits speech. All of us have had this experience and know it to be true. I am sure you can think of a time when you sensed someone’s genuine interest in hearing what you had to say, and you found yourself talking much more than you expected to. I’m sure you can think of a time when you turned your loving ear to someone that you cared deeply about, and “drew them out of their shell”.
Moses can no longer speak because he does not believe his words will make a difference. How does the prophet, the idealist, the messenger of hope and possibility in the midst of misery and despair continue when his or her message appears to fall on deaf ears? How do any of us remember that we have something of value to communicate when it seems that no one cares? At this nadir of hope, where will Moses find the strength to continue to speak?
The answer can be found back in Moses’ encounter with YHVH at the burning bush:
Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt? And God said, “Ehyeh imach – I will be with you.” (Ex. 3:11-12)
What kind of answer is this? Moses is looking for reassurance that he is the man for the job. God’s response is simply to say “I will be with you”, as if to say, “Moses, when you feel most hopeless and alone, you are not alone. Know that I am with you.”
In response to Moses’ doubts, God does not promise certainty. God promises company. Moses will overcome his despair and once more find his voice because he remembers that he is not alone.
In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday I would like to share a passage from his writing that illuminates our passage from Torah. Like Moses, King had his moments of despair, when he felt he could no longer speak his truth.
After a particularly strenuous day, I settled in bed at a late hour. My wife had already fallen asleep and I was about to doze off when the telephone rang. An angry voice said, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” I hung up, but I could not sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point.
I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally, I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced it. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.
Three nights later, our home was bombed. Strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My experience with God had given me a new strength and trust. I knew now that God is able to give us the interior resources to face the storms and problems of life.
Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, who is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. This is our hope for becoming better people. This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world. (1963; text adapted)
In our darkest moments, like Moses and Martin Luther King, may we all sense the presence of the power of life accompanying us, supporting us, and urging us on. Lift your voice and sing!
Rabbi Jonathan Kligler