A sermon delivered at Beth Shalom Synagogue on Jan. 20, 2017.
I have always struggled with speaking, especially as a child. Sometimes the words just wouldn’t come out of my mouth no matter how much I willed them, I would get stuck on certain consonants, stutter my way through them. Sometimes I wouldn’t speak at all in fear or anxiety of the consequences. As we all know, kids can be cruel.
Very few things are more hurtful than having your speech ridiculed. Perhaps that’s why I pursued foreign languages, both Spanish and Hebrew, as a way of compensating for what I viewed as my problematic English. Language always appealed to me, and yet I struggled with it.
It’s a strange confession for a rabbi to make, but something changed for the better after my second year of rabbinical school. Along with my wife, Rabbi Sam, I took a summer-long chaplaincy course at a large hospital in Maine.
Doing intensive group-processing work with other clergy, I reached a breakthrough of sorts. I finally named this weakness in front of other people. I explained how I always struggled through speech, fought the stuttering and lived with the stigma. And what happened? I got so much support and love back. Naming it strengthened me…it unleashed me from some pretty heavy shackles.
Speaking of shackles, I’m going to switch gears a little hear. There’s a famous midrash that tells of the infant Moses sitting on Pharaoh’s lap, reaching up and taking off Pharaoh’s crown, and putting it on his own head. Pharaoh’s advisors feared that this was a sign that this child would one day try to replace him, so they devised a test and
Pharaoh agreed. He set before Moses a crown and a hot coal, thinking, “If he reaches for the crown, I will have him killed.”
The baby Moses was about to reach for the shiny crown when the angel Gabriel redirected his hand away from it toward the coal. Burning his fingers, he put his hand in his mouth and injured his tongue, rendering him “slow of tongue” ever after. Though it’s not the inauguration most of us are thinking about now, tomorrow we begin
reading about the inauguration of Moses as our people’s prophet and leader. Moses, like our current President, was also an unlikely leader for many reasons.
First of all, he simply didn’t want the job. Three times, three times God insists, and yet, each time he shows himself to be a reluctant prophet. After God’s appearance to him through the burning bush, God tells Moses of his plan to liberate his people. Moses first reaction: “mi anochi, ki elech el paraoh/ Who am I to approach Pharaoh and ask such a thing!?”
His next reaction when God insists; “hen lo ya’aminu li/ they will not believe me, so why should I go.” And then finally, after all the protestations and excuses, we get to the heart of the matter: Moses has a speech impediment. “ lo ish dvarim anochi…ki chivad peh u’chvad lashon anochi/ I am not a man of words/I am slow of speech and have a slow tongue.”
Now…our commentators are clearly uncomfortable with this. How can this be!? Our people’s prophet par excellence, God’s true messenger, the only one who can see him “panim el panim/face to face,” the one in whose hands the Torah is delivered, how can HE have a speech impediment?! And so, what do they do…they massage the meaning, they take creative liberty and drash it away…
Some say, no, no, it’s not a speech impediment…it’s because he’s a foreigner, and thus couldn’t speak Egyptian well. Others say, no, no, come on, it’s not actually about speech. The chivad peh, the heaviness of mouth means that Moses can’t eat non kosher foods, and the chivad lashon, the heaviness of the tongue, is that he can’t engage in untrue speech. Or, as the midrash above stated, perhaps he burned his tongue with the coal while reaching for the crown as a child.
Though I do find inspiration and wisdom in all these possibilities, I’m going to have to disagree with our sages on this one: I think the text means exactly what it says, and therein lies its power and its inspiration.
Moses, himself, is the miracle…the one who couldn’t speak is the one who saves the nation. Once he admits his shortcoming, the transformation is astonishing. God responds with soul-shaking words, words that I remind myself of all the time. He says in response to Moses’ confession: “Mi sam peh l’adam? Who gives man a mouth, the power of speech. It is I, adonai. I will be with you, and Aaron, your brother, will help you.”
God charges Moses to come out with the truth and live up to his destiny. Aaron comes out and offers himself as Moses’ helper. Once Moses names it, he gets the needed motivation and the support, and he is able to turn his weakness into a spark for change.
Moses puts up an initial shield, a defense mechanism. He makes excuses and refuses to admit his own shortcomings, his own, very personal vulnerabilities. How often do we try the same, to explain away our own shortcomings, to justify them, to blame? It’s only after God breaks them all down, that Moses can admit the truth: I stutter, I have difficulty speaking. He names his weakness to God, to himself, and to everyone around him.
What does this tell us? What does it tell us that in this seminal Torah portion of strength and Jewish destiny, we also have this tale of vulnerability, of potential weakness? It is softness juxtaposed with strength. It is this contrast, this balance that makes us so potent. The Torah is telling us that, whatever our limitations, God can use us to do great things.
It’s easy to go through our lives convincing ourselves of our sacred narratives, shunning or denying any weakness. But what if we embraced them instead and used them to our advantage? What if we named them, and stood unafraid in our vulnerability? Perhaps, like Moses, it would strengthen us to use our impediments as tools of progress? Perhaps it would empower us to live our lives as imperfect human beings embracing our
individual and collective destiny.
After all, that’s one of the many reasons we form part of this synagogue. Here we are all seekers, all imperfect, and yet when we come together, we create a perfect whole. Moses couldn’t do it alone…he needed Aaron’s help, his brother, his sister, God’s. Hinei mah tov u’mah naim shevet achim gam yachad/How good and essential it is to sit here together and form this beautiful tapestry of Judaism together.
Admitting weakness strengthens us. It’s nothing short of transformational. In these polarizing and partisan times where gridlock is the norm, this realization is crucial. Our country’s new president should realize this. His political rivals and critics should realize this. We can realize this and start to model this behavior, and then maybe, bizrat ha’shem, with the help of God, it will be a light for those who govern to follow as well. Congressmen and woman, democrats and republicans, the President and his advisors.
Instead of hardening our hearts and reinforcing the mental fortresses of our own opinions, let us be open to the other, and let vulnerability lead to strength. We’re about to see where hardening one’s heart leads to in Exodus, and we all know: nothing good comes out of it.
As we begin reading about the inauguration of our People’s leader, Moses, we say goodbye to Genesis, to her storied individuals, the families, the heritage. We begin Exodus, the story of a united people. In all of our imperfections, we are far stronger together.