It’s clear why there was a command to Pharaoh to free the Jewish people, as he was their jailer, but the Biblical commentators are bothered by the command to the Jewish people, which seems odd and irrelevant. In order to understand this, we must look at the previous verse: “And Moshe spoke before God, stating: Behold, the children of Israel have not hearkened to me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, when he is of uncircumcised lips? “ According to the Zohar, Moshe’s difficulty in speaking was not a physical defect, but rather a spiritual stain stemming from the Egyptian galut (exile). As the Zohar states, “What is the meaning of “uncircumcised lips”? As long as the speech was in galut, the voice vanished from Moshe”.
According to the Zohar, the Egyptian exile caused the Jewish people to lose its voice, which negatively impacted Moshe’s own speech. Once the Jews leave Egypt, their collective voice returns from its exile, allowing Moshe to finally speak freely and comprehensively at Mount Sinai: “Moshe speaks and God answers him by a voice” (Sh’mot 19:19). It is here that Moshe receives the Ten Dibrot (Utterances) or Devarim (Words) (Sh’mot 20:1). The Torah itself is only completed in the Book of Devarim (Words), which is mostly a long, fiery speech by Moshe Rabbeinu – “These are the words that Moshe spoke”. What does it mean for speech to be exiled?
One of the causes for the Egyptian exile was the baseless hatred between Yoseph and his brothers. “And they hated him, and they could not speak in peace”. This hatred led to the inability of the brothers to speak to one another, at least peacefully. Yoseph himself failed in his speech when he “brought their (his brothers’) evil speech to their father”. Yoseph was brought down to Egypt in order to teach us how to speak to each other as brothers. We must learn that we cannot tolerate a situation of “us” and “them” within the Jewish people-we are one nation with one destiny which we must transform into a unity of purpose.
With this, we can understand the Zohar’s statement that the ability to speak was in exile, as we can only approach redemption once we learn to speak kindly to one another. As long as our speech is faulty, we will remain slaves to Pharaoh. This helps us understand the command to “to bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt” as Rashi quotes from the Midrash Rabbah that “God commanded them (i.e. Moshe and Aharon) to lead peacefully and calmly, and to tolerate the Jewish people”. In order to lead the Jews to freedom, Aharon and Moshe must always be role models, speaking calmly and with great tolerance for the diversity of the entire nation.
In order to understand Moshe’s leadership, we must examine the way he spoke to his people. As soon as Moshe speaks in a disproportionately harsh manner, he loses permission to continue to lead the people. “And he said to them: Hear now you rebels” (Bamidbar 20:10). Instead of speaking to the rock, he hits it and speaks to the people in an unkind manner, thereby losing his right to enter the land of Israel.
At this point, a new leadership which will soothe the people is required. “Let God, the Lord of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation …” (Bamidbar 27:16). Rashi explains: “The God of spirits-why is this said? Moshe said to the Master of the World. The thoughts of all people are clear to you, and no one is like the other. Appoint a leader who can tolerate each and every one according to his individual thinking.” Joshua is chosen as the next leader due to his ability to communicate with each person based on that individual’s unique characteristics, which is the central feature of proper spiritual leadership. Such leadership must be responsive to the community’s needs, values, dilemmas and needs.
Over the past few months, many great Torah scholars have issued statements regarding the army, democracy, women and other contemporary topics, which unfortunately have often been overly sharp and extreme, contributing to a lessening of Judaism’s beauty in the eyes of many. This is especially troubling and damaging since there is a renewed interest in Judaism and spirituality amongst many Jews in Israel, yet such extreme and harsh statements alienate many from our religion.
Tragically, in our times as well, our speech has been exiled. We have forgotten how to both speak and listen peacefully to one another, with the loudest and most fanatical voices given all the attention. It is past time that we begin to listen to a different type of leadership which focuses on the well-being of the entire Jewish people, not just its own sector or isolated enclave. “And the Jewish people were commanded” – let us redeem our exiled speech and support leaders who exude tolerance, modesty and peace, as we learn from Rashi: “God commanded them (i.e. Moshe and Aharon) to lead peacefully and calmly, and to tolerate the Jewish people”.
May we be included with Hillel’s students, who constantly learned from their great teacher that “we should be the students of Aharon, and love peace, pursue peace, love all people and bring them closer to Torah”.
Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth is the Executive Director of Beit Hillel and the Rav of Congregation Ohel Ari in Ra’anana. He served as Director of the Overseas Department of Tzohar and as the Rabbi of Bnei Akiva of North America. He also served as a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and is a former captain in the Israeli Navy Special Forces.
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