Jewish Journal

Moses: No Orator

Parshat Vaerah (Exodus 6:12-9:35)

by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila

Posted on Jan. 2, 2003 at 7:00 pm

The art of public speaking is a special gift. In the anthology "Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History" (Norton & Co., 1997), New York Times columnist William Safire collects 200 of history's outstanding instances of oratorical eloquence.

He divides this compendium of great speeches by categories, including Memorials and Patriotic Speeches; War and Revolution Speeches; Tributes and Eulogies; Sermons; Inspirational Speeches; and Speeches of Social Responsibility. Among the outstanding public addresses are Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech and John F. Kennedy's inaugural address.

Leafing through the pages of this remarkable anthology is like taking a trip through some of history's greatest moments. You meet firsthand, in their own words, some of history's greatest and most influential leaders. Remarkably, there is one well-known leader in history whose name does not grace even one page of Safire's 950-page anthology. He was a prince of Egypt in his youth, a prophet who came to know God "face to face," a leader who brought his people from slavery to freedom and a lawgiver who taught his people God's word. His name was Moses, and despite his having five of the most famous books in world history named after him, he is somehow not a part of Safire's collection of famous orators.

Please don't get me wrong: it's not that Safire has some sort of bias against Moses. While preparing his anthology, I am sure that Safire leafed through the pages of "The Five Books of Moses," searching for that "knockout sermon" which Moses must have delivered at some point in his illustrious career as a leader. But Safire was probably stricken by Moses' own words to God in response to God's instructions to, "Tell Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, to let the Israelites depart from the land." Moses reminds God: "How will Pharaoh listen to me, given that I am a man of impeded speech?"

This response was Moses' reinforcement of what he told God during his very first encounter with the Divine at the burning bush: "I beg you, O God, I am not a man of words. I have never been a man of words, not in the past, or even now that You have spoken to me. I find it difficult to speak and find the right language." I imagine that out of respect to Moses' own opinion about his oratory skills, Safire decided to leave him out of his collection of great orators.

Not only is Moses left out of Safire's book, but he would probably be left out of most synagogue's adult education speaker's series. "We want dynamic speakers who will inspire us with their powerful delivery" is the motto that most adult education committees use as their guidelines in selecting speakers.

Ironically, the man who is known as Moshe Rabbeinu, (Moses our Rabbi), would probably be rejected by many synagogue rabbinic search committees on the grounds that he lacks the oratory skills necessary to inspire the congregation. Just picture the scenario in the boardroom: "I don't care if this guy is Moses! He's not a good speaker."

Our fascination with brilliant orators often clouds our ability to listen to their message. I have often told my own congregants that I am much more flattered by someone who tells me how offended he or she was by the message of my sermon than by a passive listener who congratulates me on a "strong delivery."

The election of Moses, speech impediment and all, to the most challenging leadership role in Jewish history calls upon us to ponder the messages of our leaders beyond the arenas of public speech. Moses' call to Pharaoh was not "Lend Me Your Ears," but "listen to my message." Moses' call to his own people was "Lend Me Your Souls."

There is another powerful message in the election of a leader who lacks the gift of "persuasion through speech." With Moses as our leader, we are asked to consider the inner character and soul of the individual who guides our lives. In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel teaches that, "It is not words that are essential, but deeds." President Theodore Roosevelt was apt to say "Speak softly, but carry a big stick." Moses is a leader who will best be remembered for what he did, not for what he said. Leading the Israelites from bondage to freedom, dealing with the challenges of building a new community, and teaching his people to live in God's image are all achievements which extend far beyond the magic of one brilliant sermon.

How was Moses able to achieve all of this while lacking a powerful delivery of words? Because he possessed one character trait for which he will always stand head and shoulders above most other leaders in world history, including the majority of those found in Safire's collection: humility. "Moses was very humble," says the Torah, "more so than any man on the face of the earth." This is something for all leaders to ponder beyond their "next great sermon."

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