It’s ironic that I am at a loss for words when confronted with this particular parasha, Va’era. (Don’t worry, it passed, evidenced by the fact that this actually got posted!) This is when Moses comes before Pharoah, tries over and over to get him to free the Israelite slaves, and because he keeps saying, “No”, the first seven plagues are brought down. It is the moment in the Exodus story that depends on the power of words, the ability to sway masses of people with words. We’re not talking about Moses and Pharoah here; it’s Moses’ ability to be heard by his fellow Israelites that’s the first problem. They couldn’t hear Moses because they were “m’kotzer ruach” – with a crushed spirit, so burdened by their own slavery that they couldn’t envision another way to live.
Now, Moses didn’t think he was the right guy for the job anyway, since he told God he was “heavy of tongue” back at the burning bush. But God reassured him that Aaron, his older brother, would be by his side to be his “prophet”, and between the two of them, the message would get across to Pharoah. Not happening. So when God tells Moses to try again, Moses says, “The Israelites wouldn’t listen to me; how then should Pharoah heed me, a man of uncircumcised lips” (Ex. 6:12) or, in other words, if I can’t even get the Israelites to listen to me, how is Pharoah ever going to?
Think about that phrase, “uncircumcised lips”. He’s saying his lips are clumsy, covered, layered over, and hindered. Moses simply can’t get the right words out to have an effect. But Sfat Emet, a 19th c Hasidic rabbi said that interpretation is backwards; it’s because the people won’t listen to him that Moses feels like his lips are clumsy. Aviva Zornberg continues, explaining Sfat Emet: “Speech…normally creates listeners (or fails to create them). Here… it is the listener who creates the act of speech…..As long as there is no one to listen to God’s word, language impotently stutters.” (The Particulars of Rapture, p. 84)
So what comes first..the listener or the speaker? How many times do we have trouble speaking because no one is listening to us anyway? Those of us with older children – remember the last argument you had? I know I felt absolutely incapable of forming a coherent sentence, because I knew I’d been shut out already, and I stumbled and stuttered to find the right word that would break through. I couldn’t, so the words stopped. My lips were layered, clumsy, hindered.
I think of the people who have continued to speak out, with no one listening, calling out in the wilderness with no one around to hear. Think of folksingers, politicians, activists. We hear the dire warnings about our economy, Social Security, our health care system, our environment, and we’re truly not willing to listen, because really listening would require us to move, engage, take action. Like the Israelites, we would need to envision another way to live.
So, the folksingers keep trying to write that one song that will get the audiences to first sing along, and then act. We keep engaging our children, trying to break through the layers so we can move forward in our relationships. And the social prophets keep writing, blogging, speaking out, so the powers that be will move away from their opinions set in stone, and make a difference. Little by little, ears meet lips. One by one, the listener creates the speaker, who continues to speak, who finds another listener. This is how an entire nation became convinced it could be free, and only then could Moses turn to Pharoah. What Pharoahs are standing in front of us? To whom do we need to listen, so we can envision another way?