Against Tyrannies, Great and Small
Both Moses and Jeremiah struggled with speech. ‘Lo ish devarim anochi’, Moses proclaims nervously when God invokes him to take up the mantle of his grand mission. ‘I am not a man of words.’ (Ex. 4:10) Likewise, Jeremiah upon his calling, cried out, ‘Hineh lo yadati daber’ – ‘I don’t know how to speak.’ (Jer. 1:6) Both, to be sure, were prophets of God, summoned to stand in the breach and confront raw power. Still, in the immensity of that moment, they knew not what to say.
I don’t know what to say, and I am sure many of you may also struggle to find the words to describe what has befallen our country these last few days.
This is not to say that we don’t have strong feelings, passionate opinions or razor sharp analyses. It just means that we feel the weight of this moment and the long shadow it casts over our hearts.
I do not come from a country that was birthed through revolution. I have often wondered at what it must be like to have revolution as the founding narrative of one’s national identity. To be American, perhaps, is to live with that legacy, where power is confronted and we try to feel out the moral contours of history. For almost 250 years, the rich, complex, beautiful and horrifying aspects of the American project have been the outcome of that revolution; of the shaking off of a yoke and crafting a bold, new dream. As a European, I grew up in the shelter of that dream, felt it tug at my heart and chose consciously to settle on its shores. To see those hallowed halls of the world’s oldest liberal democracy desecrated evoked even a visceral response in me. The cords of your people’s love have wrapped themselves firmly around my heart and I felt something profound tear and rip inside of me. I cannot even imagine what it means to you, my American brothers and sisters. And so, it is difficult to find the words when crashing into the naked rawness of this moment. Even for Moses.
But just because Moses struggled to find the words, did not mean he couldn’t find his voice. Parashat Shemot is many things: a transfer of power, the rise of authoritarianism, a call to genocide and the growing of resistance. It is a portion where small, brave acts have big, world-shattering consequences. It is not that the great dwarfs the small but is driven by it. Shemot never loses the focus that we are the change.
So Moses finds his voice. His deep moral convictions gain momentum as the world around him unravels. ‘Lo ish devarim anochi’, ‘I am not a man of words.’ Rashi explains that Moses had a speech impediment: he stammered. It is a powerful testimony to what true leadership can be; that a disability is not a disqualifier but an enhancer of bringing justice to our world. But Midrash Rabbah takes a different, complementary view. The rabbinic legend states that as the infant Moses grew up at Pharaoh’s court, he would snuggle on his adoptive father’s lap and reach for the monarch’s crown, as infants and toddlers are wont to do. Pharaoh’s advisers, ever paranoid and power-driven, interpreted this ominously, predicting that Moses would one day usurp Pharaoh. Yet, Yethro advised, in a foreshadowing of a Solomonic bid, to test the boy. Place before him a nugget of gold and a hot coal and see how he chooses. Yethro trusted that Moses, being an infant, would not distinguish between either, disproving the court’s fear. Moses, already then propelled by purpose and mission, reached towards the gold. An angel intervened and redirected his hand towards the hot coal. The child reached for it, our Midrash states, and touched it to his lips, burning his tongue. This, Midrash Rabbah insists, is the reason why Moses is slow of speech.
As horrifying as this Midrash is (especially to the parents and caretakers of young children!), there is a lot to unpack here. What set Moses apart is not a lust for power but the reckoning with his own purpose. He lost his words and found his voice. He allowed himself a ripening of his ethical instinct, away from the privileges of the court. He walked in solidarity with the oppressed and honed his strategy for the inevitable confrontation with Pharaoh. What made Moses not just smart but wise was his ability to hold his tongue and listen deeply: to other human beings and to the voice of the Divine.
We are in a strange and liminal moment; between the powers and transitions of one Presidency to another, in a time of plague and an age of conflict. I cannot take away the pain any of us feels; so deep and cutting, stripping away at the pretense of our previous assurances. But I can comfort you beneath the shelter of Torah, in the shadow of that bold dream of almost 250 years ago, that dream of ‘We The People.’
We are the people. And we are all Moses. Perhaps in this moment, our struggle to find the words is for good. We can turn inwards and find good courage, cultivate abiding purpose and rekindle a love for all humanity and for our fellow citizens. In this storm-tossed age, our institutions stand and the tyrannies of our lives, be they great or small, need not be our destiny. Like Shifra and Puah, we find bravery in our awe of the Ultimate and resolve in our deep cherishing of life. Like Moses, let us find our voice for justice and like Jeremiah, feel the fire in our bones—a sacred fire which will not consume us but light our inner lamp. We will find our voice and hear the voices of others and rededicate ourselves to the essence of our democracy.