One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist
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 closed lips? –Exodus 6:12
Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes
Interfaith Chaplain, Kaiser Panorama City
Moshe’s voice is a silent howl. It is not unlike that wretched nightmare in which the mouth is open to scream, but not even a peep comes out. The one who yells to deaf ears is a prisoner in a cell. And thus even though Moshe roams the wilderness free, he is like the Israelite slaves: the personification of despair. Furthermore, since Moshe describes his lips as “ar’el” (meaning: uncircumcised), his cry alludes to being alien even among the Israelites.
Muffled, unable to communicate, he is exiled not only by his nemesis, but indeed from his very own community. He has become the consummate outsider and with neither a friend nor an enemy who bothers to listen, Moshe beseeches God in the most raw, vulnerable terms. However, Moshe is not trying to shrink from God’s call to service. It’s really the opposite; Moshe cries about the one thing he desires; to be an effective sacred mouthpiece. Ironically or not, God is the only one who can truly hear and understand him.
Personally, when I feel unheard or misunderstood it’s like I am banished, evicted; and it’s then easy to believe I’m entirely alone. So, under these conditions when God strengthens Moshe and bestows upon him magnificent tools that force everyone to watch and listen, I am reminded that redemption is often closest when things appear the bleakest. This is the message we carry forth in each generation; let’s hear it, and may God open our lips to make it heard!
Rabbi Rebecca Schatz
Assistant rabbi, Temple Beth Am
Before I could talk, I could sing. Before I could run, I could skip. Before I could deliver a sermon confidently, I could sit by someone’s bedside and bring them comfort. We meet Moshe as a man of action in Exodus, saving a Hebrew slave by slaying an Egyptian. No words. No argument. Moshe defines himself as “aral sefataim,” having uncircumcised lips. We imagine Moshe as a reluctant hero, insecure and inordinately modest. However, once in a relationship with God, he begins with “hineini,” I am present. Moshe develops into the most eloquent of leaders, first through action and eventually through song.
In this verse, Moses claims three things: B’nei Yisrael will not listen to me, so how will Pharaoh listen to me; and I am of closed speech. The 17th-century commentary “Siftei Chakhamim” suggests these verses are out of order: because Moshe’s speech was covered, B’nei Yisrael would not listen and so Pharaoh would not either. Moshe thought it was because of his oratory skills that no one listened, but it was disbelief of what he, their leader, was sharing.
Each of us is a leader of something; whether among friends, as a parent, teacher or adviser. Moshe was not a speaker but he led our people out of slavery and into freedom through action, faith and song. We are all aral sefataim, nervous of the possibilities of our weaknesses being at the forefront of our leadership. Share your insecurities and lead through them to strength.
Architect, author of “Israel History Maps”
What gets people to listen? Is it the content of the message or the rhetoric? Does presentation make a difference or the timing and circumstances under which the message is delivered? Does it matter if the message is general or too specific? Perhaps it’s about the messenger, their oral skills or their charisma.
After Moses tells the people of Israel God’s promise of deliverance, they are too impatient to listen because of their hard labor. Meaning, it is about circumstances and content. The message is too abstract and their suffering is too real. However, Moses thinks that they don’t listen to him because of how he speaks, since he lacks oral skills.
Immediately following, is a family list. The Torah lists the tribal families, beginning with Ruben, Simon, Levi, and abruptly cutting off with Aaron and Moses. The Torah is teaching us that to get a message across, one should speak as one of the family.
For the children of Israel to really hearken to Moses and the divine message of redemption, Moses needs to speak with them as one of the family. Not as an outsider or savior. Rather he needs to feel his shared past and future with the people of Israel. When God talks about deliverance from bondage, it will also include Moses’ deliverance. When God talks about returning to the promised land, Moses, too, must feel that Israel is his promised land. He’s part of the nation, sharing roots, destiny and home in the land of Israel.
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
God doesn’t even bother responding to Moshe’s argument here. God just reiterates the command to go to Pharaoh. Why? Doesn’t Moshe have a point?
If somebody tells you that they tried something way out of their comfort zone, something way beyond their range of experience and competence, and succeeded wildly the very first time, you know that person is — at best — misremembering. The first time we try anything new, in particular something that we’re not convinced we’ll be good at, it’s never a virtuoso performance. The best outcome is that we realize that maybe, with a lot more work and a lot more practice, we will one day truly excel. And this is a very good outcome indeed. It is a personal triumph.
Back at the burning bush, Moshe already had declared that he is incapable of public speaking. He proceeded with the mission to Egypt only because God gave him no choice. His first crack at moving outside of his comfort zone, at doing the thing he believed he was incapable of succeeding at, didn’t go so well. And now he wants to throw in the towel. No wonder God chooses to not dignify Moshe’s complaint with a response. Or to put it more accurately, God says the equivalent of, “Back on the horse, Moshe.”
None of us can be good at everything. But all of us can be good at things that we think are beyond us. And we need a mentor who says, “Back on the horse.”
Teacher, Pizza and Parsha, 1- 2 p.m. Sundays at The Community Shul
Why were Moshe’s lips sealed?
After Moshe told Pharaoh to let his people go, Pharaoh responded by intensifying the suffering of B’nei Yisroel. Pharaoh increased their burden by demanding that they create the same number of bricks without providing the straw necessary to do so.
When Moshe complained to HaShem that Pharaoh not only failed to provide instant redemption, but he further mistreated the Jews, Rashi says that HaShem rebuked Moshe for daring to kvetch. HaShem said to Moshe, “You are not like Avraham, whom I promised an heir in Yitzchak, and then ordered to bring him as a burnt offering. Avraham did not question my ways.”
Similarly, although HaShem promised Avraham Eretz Yisroel, Avraham said nothing when he had to overpay for Maarat Hamachpela to bury Sarah.
Perhaps Moshe’s “sealed lips” resulted not so much from a speech impediment, but from his resolve to stay silent in the face of HaShem’s decrees.
Moshe had to learn that he was to persist in challenging Pharaoh, but not HaShem. Similarly, whenever we confront anyone who seeks to hurt us or impose non-Torah values on us, we should know that HaShem remains with us in our distress. Like Moshe, we should know that when we speak out against Pharaoh, we should do so with the respect, authority and determination symbolized by the “staff” in Moshe’s hand. Instead of kvetching about anti-Semitism, we must work practically on how to keep ourselves safe, while continuing to make our world a home for Godliness.