Monday, January 14, 2013

Parshat Vaeira

Here are a few thoughts from last week's Liberal Judaism Thought for the Week about the Torah portion:

Parshat Vaeira

But Moses spoke before the Lord, saying, “Behold, the Children of Israel did not hearken to me. How then will Pharaoh hearken to me, seeing that I am of uncircumcised lips?” (Exodus 6:12)

The time has come for Moses to take his place as leader of his people. God tells him to go to Pharaoh and ask for the freedom of the Children of Israel.  They should be released from bondage and allowed to leave the land of Egypt. Initially, Moses chooses not to accept his mission. The excuse he gives is that since he was unable to persuade the Children of Israel to listen to him, what chance would he have of convincing Pharaoh? He claims he has a physical disability, he cannot speak.

The Midrash tells us that as a baby, Moses was tested by Pharaoh to see if he would be a threat to the kingdom. A golden cup and a blazing coal were placed in front of the child. He naturally reached towards the gold, but the angel Gabriel came down and moved his hand towards the coal. Baby Moses picked up the coal, put it in his mouth, and burned his lips. This was the explanation for his problem in later life.

Moses, however, uses an odd phrase to describe his speech impediment:  aral s’fatayim. Orlah is Hebrew for foreskin, an obstruction over the head of the penis. Thus we might understand the phrase as meaning his lips are somehow impeded by a metaphorical flap of skin. Rashi gives several examples in the Tanach of the root ayin, resh, lamed used to mean clogged or closed. This is to make clear to us that the ‘closing of his lips’ meant that Moses definitely had some kind of speech defect.

Other commentators consider this issue from a less literal perspective. Perhaps not wishing to speak is an example of the humility of Moses. Or this one flaw in Moses would prove that any person he persuaded would have been converted by the purity of the message rather than the sophistry of the speaker. Or that since he had not grown up within the slave community, he did not feel that he could speak for them. One thing is certain, though – Moses doubted his ability to say what should be said.

It is clear from myriad explanations through the ages, that understanding this moment in the history of our people always has contemporary relevance. In the Torah, God solved the problem by enlisting Moses’ brother Aaron to be the speaker (Ex. 7:1). Today we do not expect such Divine intervention. Yet one does not have to be a Moses to be faced with a situation when speaking up may make a difference. It could be something as fleeting as a homophobic slur, a racist remark, or a sexist comment made at work, on the Tube, or amongst our circle of friends. However, so often we also hesitate – is it appropriate? Will it make things difficult? Will it make a difference?

What is it that stops us speaking, and how may we overcome those fears and limitations in order to take our part in developing the world in which we live? While God may not provide us with an Aaron, we do have the resources of family and good friends. Their support can help to overcome the demons of self-doubt and uncertainty that stand in our way. Ultimately, though, the key is to find within ourselves the strength to take the chance. Our words may not be elegant or articulate, but they must be spoken. For while we are not obliged to finish the task, neither are we free to neglect it!

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