Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week by educational consultant Natalie Blitt. From Skokie, Illinois, Natalie has spent eight summers on staff. She studied English at McGill and Journalism at The University of King’s College. She’s an education consultant for the iCenter, working to make Israel education an integral part of Jewish education. She is also the author of the young-adult novels The Distance from A to Z and The Truth About Leaving, as well as three middle-grade novels. Natalie and her husband, Rabbi Josh Feigelson, have three sons.
Building Resilience: Reflections on Parashat Va-era
by Natalie Blitt
At the beginning of this week’s parashah – Va’era – Moses once again offers up a rationale, which he also offered in last week’s reading, that he cannot serve as God’s emissary because his speech is impeded.
וַיְדַבֵּ֣ר מֹשֶׁ֔ה לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר הֵ֤ן בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֹֽא־שָׁמְע֣וּ אֵלַ֔י וְאֵיךְ֙ יִשְׁמָעֵ֣נִי פַרְעֹ֔ה וַאֲנִ֖י עֲרַ֥ל שְׂפָתָֽיִם׃
But Moses appealed to the LORD, saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!” (Exodus 6:12)
And then again 18 verses later:
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֖ה לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה הֵ֤ן אֲנִי֙ עֲרַ֣ל שְׂפָתַ֔יִם וְאֵ֕יךְ יִשְׁמַ֥ע אֵלַ֖י פַּרְעֹֽה׃
Moses appealed to the LORD, saying, “See, I am of impeded speech; how then should Pharaoh heed me?” (Exodus 6:30)
The return to this disagreement is unusual. In last week’s parashah, after mounting a series of arguments against God’s plan of sending him to speak to the Israelites and Pharaoh, Moses first brings up his difficulties with speech:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֣ה אֶל־יְהוָה֮ בִּ֣י אֲדֹנָי֒ לֹא֩ אִ֨ישׁ דְּבָרִ֜ים אָנֹ֗כִי גַּ֤ם מִתְּמוֹל֙ גַּ֣ם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁ֔ם גַּ֛ם מֵאָ֥ז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל־עַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֧י כְבַד־פֶּ֛ה וּכְבַ֥ד לָשׁ֖וֹן אָנֹֽכִי׃
But Moses said to the LORD, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)
God’s response shuts down his argument:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֵלָ֗יו מִ֣י שָׂ֣ם פֶּה֮ לָֽאָדָם֒ א֚וֹ מִֽי־יָשׂ֣וּם אִלֵּ֔ם א֣וֹ חֵרֵ֔שׁ א֥וֹ פִקֵּ֖חַ א֣וֹ עִוֵּ֑ר הֲלֹ֥א אָנֹכִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃
And the LORD said to him, “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? (Exodus 4:11)
But what is God really saying here? That God knows Moses has this affliction for God is the creator of everything and God created him like this? Or that as the creator of all things, God could fix this impediment if God so chooses? Whatever the meaning, God’s response, along with the promise that his brother Aaron would be there to speak for him, convinces Moshe.
Why then does Moses return to this issue?
Some of the traditional commentators see this return as due to an increased intensity in his role (before he just spoke to his people, the Israelites; now he will be speaking to Pharaoh), or that Moses believes that this time he’d be going without Aaron. For others, Moses returns to the issue because of God’s initial response. For if God’s original answer to Moses’ appeal was that it is in God’s power to cure him, perhaps he is asking for that cure now.
However, another read of this story is possible. As the reader of the text, we don’t see Moses having a particularly difficult time speaking. It isn’t mentioned until Moses brings it up at the burning bush, and it isn’t mentioned again after the negotiation with Pharaoh. In fact, Moses gives eloquent speeches through the next three books of the Torah.
Perhaps Moses didn’t have a speech impediment or any “diagnosed” challenge with speaking that would be noticed by another. Perhaps his slowness of speech was only evident to himself, in the same way that, for many of us, we believe that it would be impossible not to notice that which we lack. Perhaps, like many of us, Moses felt a sense of imposter syndrome: he assumed that anyone else would be perfectly comfortable talking to Pharaoh, but that he was not up to the task and would be exposed as a terrible spokesperson.
Years ago, an educator told me that teaching resilience starts with teaching kids not to compare their insides with someone else’s outsides. On the surface, the advice is basic, but when you really think about it, it’s advice that is as important for adults as for children. It could be that Moses could hear his stutter blaring every time he opened his mouth, and in his mind, nobody else had the same problem because he couldn’t see them struggle with it.
There are many amazing gifts that kids get by living together as a community at camp. I believe that one of them – part of Ramah’s “magic” and likely something we don’t highlight enough – is that they begin to see each other with more humanity and they begin to learn that they aren’t the only ones struggling with some aspect of life. Communal living humanizes all of us – no one can put on airs 24/7. We all get dirty, happy, sad, annoyed, funny, endearing, and more; camp provides an exposure to the human condition of our peers we can get almost nowhere else in our lives. As such, our campers see each other as whole people, warts and all. Camp is the wonderful opportunity to see each other for who we are, and to build resilience – something Moses seems to gain as he develops in his leadership over the years – by seeing other kids as just as real and awesome and flawed as we are.