Parasha Shemot


Parasha Shemot

This week we begin a new Torah book, Exodus, and enter into a new world that we did not know from the book of Genesis.  The people of Israel settle in Egypt and multiply until they become a threat to the Egyptian government.  The king of Egypt consults with his advisers and makes a fateful decision: to enslave the people of Israel and make their life bitter.

Our Parasha Shemot tell as that in that darkness, Moshe was born, and after three months of hiding, his desperate mother places him in a basket on the banks of the Nile.  The daughter of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, saved his life and he grew up in the palace of the Egyptian king.  One day Moshe gets into trouble when he kills an Egyptian who abused a Jew and beat him, and he is forced to flee from Egypt.  He arrived in Midian, got married and became a shepherd.

One day Moshe was shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep in the desert, and there, God revealed himself to him from a burning bush and assigned him the task of returning to Egypt and representing the people of Israel before Pharaoh in preparation for the liberation and departure from Egypt.

Moshe does not accept the position easily.  Five times he tried to argue and refuse, each time he comes up with a new reason why he is not suitable for the position and why his mission is bound to fail. His most persuasive claim was: “My Lord, I am not a man of words… because my mouth is heavy and my tongue is heavy.”

Moshe did not have developed rhetorical skills, and even suffered from some distortion in producing sounds from his mouth, so that his words were heard in a way that was not clear enough.  This disability, Moshe claims, is significant to the fact that he is not suitable for the role assigned to him.  One of the skills required for a leader is the ability to lecture and persuade the masses, and Moshe cannot fulfill that.

God’s answer was sharp and clear: “But the Lord said to him, “Who gave man a mouth, or who makes [one] dumb or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? So now, go! I will be with your mouth, and I will instruct you what you shall speak.”

If we look at God’s answer it seems that Moshe was not promised that his rhetorical disability would be cured. Moshe will indeed receive divine assistance and he will be able to speak and deliver his words. Why was this problem not addressed in a proper way?  Why did Moshe enter the leadership role when he was speech impaired?

Rabbi Nissim Girondi, a 14th century Sephardic sage, gives the following answer to this:

There is danger in rhetoric.  A leader with excellent rhetorical skills can sway the masses even when the content of what he is saying is not necessarily true. The leadership of the people by Moshe was devoid of outwardly shining signs, so that the Torah that was to be given by Moshe in the future would not be accepted by the people as a result of momentary enthusiasm.

The Torah must be accepted in the settlement of the mind, while observing and understanding the meaning of it.  In order for divine truth to penetrate the hearts of men, it must be free from external radiance.  The truth is evident in the content and not in the external presentation.

A person who is interested in investing and progressing in learning Torah and observing mitzvot, should prepare for the fact that the great truth of Judaism does not always shine from the outside.  Satisfaction and happiness come when the focus is mainly on the content and not on the external form.


Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Refael Cohen

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