This week’s parsha, or weekly Torah portion, Va’era, is the second parsha in Exodus, the book detailing the Israelites’ exodus from slavery under Pharaoh to freedom. “Va’era” means “I appeared” or “I let Myself be seen.” God says “Va’era” to Moses, as in, “I let Myself be seen by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and by this, God means something along the lines of: “I revealed Myself to them so they know I am the real deal.” God explains that the distress of the Israelites who are living in bondage under Pharaoh led God to remember the covenant God had made with the patriarchs to give their descendants the land of Canaan. According to God, it is now also time for the Israelites to fully understand the limitlessness of God’s power.
God tells Moses, the recently-appointed leader of the Israelites (who has a speech impediment), that he and his brother Aaron, who has been speaking to the Israelites on Moses’s and therefore God’s behalf, should get ready for a hard fight with Pharaoh regarding the Israelites’ freedom. God also decides to “harden Pharaoh’s heart” so that God will get to have several opportunities to show off divine strength and power. God decides that if Pharaoh doesn’t relent, the best plan of action will be plagues that afflict the Egyptians and not the Israelites. Of course, Pharaoh puts up a fight, and the plagues of the Passover story begin. Then Pharaoh tells Moses that the Israelites can at the very least go on a brief journey to sacrifice to God, but quickly changes his mind. More plagues to come next week.
So much happens in this parsha, and I felt overwhelmed as I read it. But ultimately I found myself coming back to the age-old question of why not just select Aaron instead of Moses? Why this game of telephone? What could be the benefit of a leader with a speech impediment?
Thinking about this reminded me of completely losing my voice. This would not have been such a problem except that I am a high school teacher, and 99% of my job, or so I thought, involves talking. At school, all I could was whisper. I whispered my instructions to a student who would repeat them to the class. “Please take out your homework,” translated to “Yo! Homework out now or Ms. Cohen won’t be happy.” I did my best to say as few words as possible, and this meant that I had to keep instructions clear and to the point. Minor infractions had to be ignored or handled using the infamous teacher look. I had to pick my words, and battles, carefully, because someone else was going to repeat them and I didn’t want to be misinterpreted, and because I had a limited capacity for speech and needed to conserve energy. Amazingly, my classes ran smoothly.
According to one commentator, Moses’ “slow tongue” was his strength. Because speaking was a challenge, he would mindfully select his words, and what Aaron was told to repeat to the Israelites would be the true essence of what God wanted conveyed.
What would it mean if we could only say one-fourth or one-fifth of the words we say daily? What would we decide was superfluous? Would we become better listeners? How often have I thought to myself, I wish I had not said that, right after speaking quickly and mindlessly? In an era of fast-talking and multi-tasking, how would our interactions change if we said less and, in doing so, said more?
Though I was thrilled to get my voice back, I realized that losing it had been a kind of blessing. If you had no choice but to cut out a chunk of your daily words, phrases, or communication, what would you select to let go of and why? These could be words you say to yourself or to others. On the other hand, which speech would you come to view as essential? My kavanah, or intention, for this week is to ask ourselves how mindful awareness of our speech can help us improve the quality of our lives and the lives of others.