A Leadership of Silence

“I have never been eloquent…”

Exodus 4:10


This week, we will open up the book of Exodus in synagogues around the world a day after America’s presidential inauguration. The time feels ripe to think about the relationship between speech and leadership. Words can communicate hope, or they can confirm hate. Words can lift the spirit or send listeners into a depressive tailspin. Words can be a tool of the arrogant or an obstacle to the humble.


Moses complained multiple times about his speaking inadequacies related to content, to the mechanics of speech and to his own unworthiness to represent his people. “’So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’” [Exodus 3:10-11].


Moses could not agree to a plan that he felt unworthy to represent. Moses countered again. “Moses answered, ‘What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you?’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘What is that in your hand?’ ‘A staff,’ he replied. The Lord said, ‘Throw it on the ground.’ Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it,” [Exodus 4:1-3]


This would surely have moved Moses to action, but still he protested. “Moses said to the Lord, ‘Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.’ But Moses said, ‘Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else,’” [Exodus 4:10-13]


Later, in 6:12 and 30, Moses added an additional, puzzling complaint: he has uncircumcised lips, a very odd expression that suggests some kind of blockage that prevents his words from achieving the mellifluous peak necessary to be an influential leader. Moses failed to understand why he specifically was chosen, why anyone would listen to him and where the source of speech would come from for a man of few words. Although we have classically understood Moses to be a stutterer or have a stammer, this reading may be too literal. Moses may have felt stymied by his lack of elegance rather than by any physical problem. Rashi observes that verse 4:10 should be read this way: “In heaviness, I speak.” Words were neither light nor trivial to him. This he regarded as a political liability. In politics, words can become weapons of insurrection or popularity or insincerity. These were realms not familiar to the young man born in trepidation and suddenly transferred to a house of royalty.


Avivah Gottleib Zornberg in her new and excellent book, Moses: A Human Life, comments that Moses’ “...destiny is yoked with his people’s in ways that he cannot at first fathom. Heaviness is everywhere, both inside his mouth and in his relation with a people who are ‘his’ only by way of a mother who has receded into oblivion. He has been shot into a future that he cannot recognize as his own.” Instead of curing Moses of a speech problem that plagued him, God wanted Moses because of his speech deficiencies: “Moses’ mouth is precisely what God has chosen. But He will be with his mouth, He will implicate Himself in the issues of his mouth. God invites Moses to open his whole being to a kind of rebirth. Already twice-born, he is to surrender to yet another transfiguration.”


God used Moses mouth as a conduit until Moses developed his own gift for language. More importantly, Moses with his staff, his brother and his miracles showed his people that action is more important to leadership than words will ever be. Moses felt trapped by speech and would only be able to free himself and his people when he overcame this incapacity to let words inspire action. They need not be many words either. “Let my people go” may not constitute poetry, but as the language of freedom against oppression, these three Hebrew words and four English ones have been a clarion call to revolution for centuries.


Moses’ humble objection to leadership set the standard for the rest of us. Even when we agree to a task, the question “who am I?” should be a whisper in our ears always. It helps us appreciate that great leadership is about influence rather than power, modesty rather than publicity, deeds rather than words.


Shabbat Shalom


The Eyes Have It

Anyone who places his eyes on that which is not his is not given what he desires, and that which he had is taken from him.
— Talmud Sotah 9b

Out of sight, out of mind. Within our sights, within our minds. Self-discipline isn’t that simple, but it may not be as hard as we think. If we remove the visual temptation that gets in the way of a personal goal, we may be liberating ourselves to do better and be better.

Mark Twain once said, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” Not only do we depend on our eyes, our eyes can mislead us by pulling us in directions we really don’t want to go. Perhaps this explains the Talmudic saying: “The evil inclination controls only that which a person’s eye sees” [BT Sota 8a]. The failure to focus or the failure to turn away our gaze can cause deep emotional scarring. And it can create discipline fatigue. Roy Baumeister and John Tierney claim in their book, Willpower, that people spend about a quarter of their waking hours resisting desire - at least four hours per day.” That’s exhausting. Just reading it makes me want to take a nap.

One way to free ourselves of this tiring mess is to remove temptations that are visual from our line of sight. When we put temptation within our visual realm or don’t avoid it, it changes our focus, releases our imagination and then may alter even the best of intentions.

Many Jewish sacred texts focus on the problem of focus, namely what we look at may easily become what we do. Sight leads to action or inaction, depending on the circumstance. We can watch something gruesome that creates fear within us and possibly paralysis. We can look at food that we shouldn’t be eating or any physical object of desire - including people - and then become overwhelmed with temptation. We can look away from suffering and become emotionally hardened to the plight of others. What we look at or fail to look shapes us.

This may explain why our central prayer, the Shema, suggests rituals that shape our visual path. Tefillin is to be worn between the eyes so that it serves as a moral visor and a mezuza is to grace our doorposts: “You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.” Tzitzit are worn to give the wearer something to look at to avoidimmoral distraction,“...and you will not follow after your heart and after your eyes by which you go astray - so that you may remember and fulfill all My commandments and be holy to your God.”

Shaping our visual path helps us stick with good habits. Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit,describes habit as a three-step loop. “First there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future: The Habit Loop.” The habit loop starts with a cue, usually visual. Remove the visual temptation, change the habit.

In their book Switch - on creating and sustaining change -Dan and Chip Heath advise us not to view change as scaling a tall mountain ahead of us but by eliminating the obstacles so change looks more like a downhill slide. Part of that is removing the visual obstructions that provide temptations or push us off-course: “Tweaking the environment is about making the right behavior a little easier and the wrong behaviors a little harder. It’s that simple.” For anyone trying to make a change, it never feels that simple, but there is something wonderfully liberating about the clarity of forming better habits.  Make sure it’s hard to access what won’t be good for you and make good habits increasingly easier, not only through repetition, but through recognition and rewards.

This takes us back to the powerful quote above. When we set our eyes on what we cannot have, we endanger losing what we do have. Our jealousy or desire gets in the way of a sense of blessing for our own abundance.  Best to look only at what we have and be grateful.

Shabbat Shalom