A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community
January 8, 2005 27 Tevet 5765
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow
Last week's parashah, Sh'mot, closes on a discouraging note. Having remained loyal to the command of God, Moses and Aaron stand before Pharaoh conveying the word of God, "Let My people go..." In rage and defiance, Pharaoh not only denies the request, but further embitters the lives of the Israelites as he refuses to provide straw for the slaves. They must now break their backs gathering materials to make the same quota of bricks as before. Though lifted by a moment of hope upon hearing that God had taken note of their plight, the Israelites now become impatient and enraged, even skeptical of Moses' message. After being reproached by a group of Israelites, Moses turns to God asks candidly, "Why did You bring harm upon this people?" This week's parashah, Parashat Va–era, opens in a moment of prophetic frustration and divine assurance. Restating the divine promise of redemption, God commands Moses to stand before the Israelites and reassure them of their imminent freedom. However, "when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses because of their shortness of spirit and harsh physical labor."
Listening and hearing become core themes in the narrative of redemption. What does Parashat Va–era teach us about hearing? And, more importantly, what does it teach us about leadership? Three elements emerge: understanding context, communicating effectively and designing a strategy for success.
Understanding the context. Moses is charged with a yeoman's responsibility –having heard the command of God, he must instill the promise of redemption in the hearts of the people. Though he walks away rejected and crushed numerous times, he fails to take note of the context. What are the people experiencing that prevents them from hearing the divine message? The Torah offers two explanations: kotzer ru'ah and avodah kashah. Although one may literally translate kotzer ru'ah as shortness of breath or spirit, it can also be translated as spiritually crushed. Avodah kashah, or hard labor, speaks to a state of being physically exhausted. Not only were the people physically tired, but they were spiritually demoralized, making it difficult for them to hear the message of freedom.
Communicating effectively. As this week's parashah continues, we are privy to yet a second element that might effect the hearing of the people. After Moses' stunning failure, God comes back at Moses with an even more outrageous request. "Go and tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart." Not surprisingly, Moses responds, "The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech?" The Hebrew words used to express impeded speech are aral sefatyim – literally of uncircumcised lips. The phrase conjures up the image of a foreskin or barrier. Something is preventing Moses from conveying the essence of God's message. Moses senses that he is not communicating effectively yet is not sure how to proceed.
Designing a successful strategy. God does not respond to Moses' challenge directly, yet God changes course. Having spoken previously solely to Moses, God now broadens the base, including Aaron more fully. "So the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron in regard to the Israelites and Pharaoh, King of Egypt, instructing them to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt." God realizes that the burden is too great for Moses alone to bear and so speaks to Moses' brother Aaron, too. Moses and Aaron must work as a team so that the people will listen.
These three qualities: understanding context, communicating effectively and designing a successful strategy, are crucial to any successful leader. Avivah Zornberg points out beautifully that, "in order to hear, we must clear ourselves of obstruction, open ourselves; for that reason, we read the narrative of the Exodus, culminating in the Song of the Sea, before reading the Shema prayer. The Exodus thus becomes the therapeutic paradigm for preparedness – the catharsis that frees us to hear" (Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, 111). As Zornberg demonstrates, our daily liturgy reinforces the need to hear clearly and effectively. The Shema, in which we declare God's Oneness, demands that we hear our own words as we recite the liturgy. The prayer service brilliantly transitions from the triumphant Song of the Sea as the Israelites march from the straits of Egypt into freedom. We repeat those words – breaking the bond of Pharaoh's slavery and embracing the commanding voice of Sinai. Hearing is indeed the key to redemption. But to realize redemption we must hear the context, communicate effectively and be deliberate in thought and action.
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz.