Va’era Sermon- Heavy Words
You’re a coward, said the man.
He was talking to a cabinet member at a primary school in Islington. Perhaps his slur is unsurprising given the current tone of our public discourse, but this man- a parent of one of the children at the school- had a particular reason for his ire.
The then education secretary, Ed Balls, was at the school to visit a group of young children who had made a film about their experiences of having a stammer.
At the end of the visit, a parent came up to him and said to him- “can I just ask, do you have a stammer yourself?” When he replied that he did, the father said:
“My son is one of the kids in that video, and what he’s done there speaking about his stammer is really brave. And I think you’re a coward for not doing the same. Why don’t you give these kids some hope and confidence that you can have a stammer and become a Cabinet minister?”
Can you? What could he tell these children about his experiences?
If you know this fact about Ed Balls, chances are you know it because of a memorable incident in the House of Commons. He got up to give the opposition rebuttal to the government’s autumn statement and was met by what he described as a ‘gale’ of noise and mockery. This mockery had been happening every time he stood to speak for the previous half decade. MPs across the house would shout ‘errr’ every time he hesitated- only further exacerbating his stammer. He even overheard an MP in his own party say loudly after one noisy exchange- “He’s supposed to be the Secretary of State and he can’t even get his words out.”
After this particular day in 2012 he was confronted on the Today program about his performance, and upset, without thinking blurted out “everyone who knows me knows that I have a stammer, and sometimes my stammer gets the better of me in the first minute or two when I speak, especially when I have the prime minister and 300 MPs yelling at me at the top of their voices. But frankly that is just who I am and I don’t mind that.”
After the programme, he sat in his dressing room and cried. He had always thought the right thing to do was to cover it up, to keep it under the surface, and now the world knew.
Ed Balls is not alone in walking the personal tightrope between sharing and secrecy, between explanation and exposure.
Sharing his experience helped people to understand him, but it also made him feel vulnerable, he had encountered an unforgiving and cruel culture in the commons, and he feared the public reaction, and ultimately the question of whether someone who wasn’t always going to be ready with a sharp rebuttal on the tip of his tongue could perform a role like his.
Can someone who speaks like me, be in this role?
What is that question really asking?
The comedian Rosie Jones, has ataxic cerebral palsy, it means her speech pattern is slower than other comics- though her humour certainly isn’t. Yet still, when she appears on radio, she has spoken about relying on her listeners to not put up walls, and to not just hear her voice but rather to listen to her words. She has plenty to say, but she relies on people’s ability to listen beyond the way her voice comes out in order to hear it.
Both individuals help us to think about the way we expect people who have a platform to speak to communicate with us. It makes sense that people enjoy the experience of being swept away by powerful oratory, we appreciate the comfort of a clear and calmly delivered answer. A voice so smooth we could listen to it read the phone book is soothing, a person who speaks with certainty and confidence is likely to inspire that feeling in others but all these raise the question- what do we miss when we start with the way someone speaks, and what do we ignore, when damaging ideas slip through amidst their dulcet tones?
Can someone who speaks like me, be in this role?
That seems to be the question that is on Moses mind when he is told to go to the Israelites and introduce himself as their leader. In last week’s parasha we heard him say, “Please God, don’t ask me to do this, my mouth and tongue are heavy, I find it hard to speak” — and God gave Moses signs and wonders to perform and help him to communicate. And then again in this week’s portion, he says, “really God, remember that time in last week’s portion that the Israelites didn’t listen to me and you had to give me magic tricks to do so people wouldn’t laugh in my face and ignore me? Well, now you want me to go and talk to Pharaoh… Why would he listen to me וַאֲנִ֖י עֲרַ֥ל שְׂפָתָֽיִם because I am of impeded speech?”
Moses is fixated on the way he speaks, and it’s often used as one of the ways that Moses is described as a flawed leader. This description has always fascinated me, why is this a flaw attributed to Moses? As many of our b’nei mitzvah students discover, the Torah is full of incidences that go a bit like this:
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל
“And God spoke to Moses saying, speak unto the children of Israel.”
God clearly has no issue with Moses’s communication abilities, but the same can’t be said for the Israelites- or Moses himself.
When Moses explains his predicament he says to God:
לֹא֩ אִ֨ישׁ דְּבָרִ֜ים אָנֹ֗כִי
I am not a man of words…
כִּ֧י כְבַד־פֶּ֛ה וּכְבַ֥ד לָשׁ֖וֹן אָנֹֽכִי
…because my mouth and tongue are heavy
Rashi suggests, in the most often quoted explanation, this means Moses had a stammer. Rashbam says, rather than a stammer, it means that he didn’t speak upper class Egyptian dialects and thus his words sound clunky to the Egyptians he needs to speak to. The word kvad, or kabed in its basic form, means heavy, and it has the same connotations as in English. Heavy doesn’t just mean weighty, it also means difficult, burdensome. If you describe a film or a book as being a bit heavy, it’s often a way of saying it was hard to take on, a bit much.
When Moses says his speech is impeded he uses the word עֲרַ֥ל- which means blocked or obstructed, or uncircumcised in the words of many translations. What is it that blocks his speech? It’s possible that it is a physical challenge, but given his ability to communicate in other settings, I wonder if what Moses identifies is a social problem. He doesn’t have the right accent or the right dialect, his words are boring and difficult to listen to, he doesn’t give off the confident aura that might be expected from a leader in his position. Although he has been given this task to perform he doesn’t trust his ability to get past the blockages, the impediments, not to him speaking, but to them being able to listen and hear.
Heavy words, difficult words, words that can’t be easily swept into a grand and inspiring narrative, those words are hard to hear. Moses isn’t the bearer of comfort, he is demanding of the people, he scolds them, he doesn’t let them rest, he is angry with them, and ultimately the communication challenges in his relationship with them boil over to the point where he loses it completely and is no longer able to be their leader as a result.
It’s a good job Moses never had to run for public office.
But this is why I think Moses and the focus on his words and how they are experienced is important. Moses was not easy to listen to, he didn’t sound like a leader to the Egyptians, and his own people struggled to listen to his words. He asked difficult things of them, he expected them to be more than they were.
Smooth words can be seductive, well woven narratives and neatly assembled arguments pave the way for political success, but think our tradition offers a cautionary tale in this regard. The leaders we need are not always those who are easy to hear. Hope, comfort, direction, it is only natural that these are things people seek, but there are big problems out there to work through and an honest reckoning of the paths forward involves some pretty heavy conversations- conversations that don’t fit on the side of a bus.
Perhaps Moses’s challenges invite us to engage with the things that create barriers for us- that impede us from hearing another’s speech. Whether its one of the things our commentators suggest, such as their accent or the serious implications of their words, or as a result of physical disability, gender, political affiliation, or age, our tradition reminds us that the right leaders are not always the people who see themselves as obvious candidates.
Zach, when you spoke about our climate last night I had in my mind the image of Greta Thunberg- who I think might at this point be on a level pegging with Moses for the number of times she has been mentioned in this bimah this year- being scolded again by Donald Trump at this weeks world economic forum in Davos. She is someone that people find hard to hear too, her words are heavy and demanding, she is calling for real change. She doesn’t communicate in a typical manner. And yet, her message has reached millions.
It gives me hope, that we can and will find the courage to listen to the words we need to hear as well as the words we want to hear. Reading this story is a reminder to seek out different voices- because it is those who speak in new and different ways that our tradition teaches have the potential to lead us to the promised land.