Parashat Sh’mot (5780 – 2020)
Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Moses, a Hebrew survivor, formerly an Egyptian prince, and now a refugee shepherd in the wilderness of Midian, is called upon by God to become the leader of his enslaved people, the Israelites. In the longest conversation between a human being and God to be recorded in the Torah, Moses keeps on arguing against God’s call. He tries to get out of the mission that God has chosen for him.
In our own times of trouble and uncertainty, it is intriguing to read how one person tries to wriggle out of his responsibility to do something on behalf of those who are suffering. As the Torah devotes so much space to documenting the attempts by a person to evade their responsibility, perhaps that extended effort might prompt us to self-reflection. “Is this something that applies to any of us?” – we may wonder with discomfort.
One of the many arguments that Moses marshals to buttress his refusal to go forward is his claim to be unqualified because he is “k’vad peh u’kh’vad lashon – heavy of mouth and tongue.” Various interpretations have been given for this phrase, the most common being that Moses claims to have a speech impediment. But God’s response hints that broader issues are involved. God answers:
- Who is it that gives a person speech?
Who makes him dumb or deaf?
Who makes her keen-sighted or blind?
Is it not I, the Eternal?
Go now; I shall help you to speak
and show you what to say.
So it seems that Moses was using his difficulties of speaking – whether physiological, psychological or temperamental – to stand for his own sense of inadequacy and fear. God’s response is to first to take the focus off of Moses’ own experience. God explains that the power of speech is a Divine gift dispensed at God’s discretion. This implies that whenever anyone – and not just Moses – chooses to speak, they are accompanied, in some way by God.
Does God mean that every time anyone says anything, however trivial, or even when the speech is deceitful or hateful, that God is there, helping? I don’t think so. I think the context here shows that we are speaking about “speaking up.” God assures Moses that Moses is not the only person who has been called to speak up and “speak truth to power” in difficult and, sometimes, even dangerous circumstances. (This is something to especially recall as we approach Martin Luther King Day.) But when a person must choose whether to open their mouth at that time, for that purpose, they should realize that God is with them. This is why the gift of speech was bestowed upon the human being at the very beginning of their creation.
Thus God seeks to overcome Moses’ sense of isolation in two ways. The clear promise by God to help Moses is an offer of Divine accompaniment. But, additionally, God reminds Moses that Moses shares his lonely but necessary responsibility, not only with God, but also with others, both before him and after him, throughout time, and down to our own days. Moses is being reminded that he is part of two distinct, yet related traditions – not just the national tradition of the Israelite people, but also the universal tradition of all those who speak up. Those two traditions beckon us all.
Rabbi David Greenstein
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Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein.