Parashat Va’eira: Fact-checking

The small act of improving Moses’s speaking abilities would have gone a long way toward improving his ambitious agenda, yet God preserved Moses’s speech impediment.

 FEWER BULLHORNS, more introspection. (photo credit: Keystone/Getty Images)
FEWER BULLHORNS, more introspection.
(photo credit: Keystone/Getty Images)

Moses was hand-selected to liberate us from Egypt and exhibit the existence of God to a human audience that had previously ignored Him. Moses possessed an impressive blend of personal qualities, each of which would serve him in his long and storied career. 

As an infant, he was graced with radiant good looks, which drew the interest of an Egyptian princess. Raised by royals, his palace upbringing endowed him with the confidence to challenge Pharaoh and his intimidating court of magicians. 

Moses deeply sensed the pain of human suffering, endangering his own life to rescue a battered Jewish slave. He valiantly defended the weak against injustice, saving shepherd girls from local tormentors. Morally indignant, he challenged two quarreling Jews to rise above their pettiness and behave more gracefully. Loyal to his past, he delayed his grand mission, first securing permission from his father-in-law to relocate the family to Egypt.

Additionally, Moses was the consummate outsider: a Jewish baby, raised by an Egyptian princess and married to a Midianite woman, his broad exposure and diverse experiences provided him with a fresh perspective and allowed his unbiased eyes to see the world large and whole. This future leader combined an impressive array of character traits and appeared to be the perfect candidate for a historical mission. 

There was only one problem: This multi-talented man possessed a severe speech impediment. Acknowledging his handicap, Moses himself was initially hesitant to accept this complicated mission. How could he stand before Pharaoh, representing God, when he could not speak clearly and emphatically? How could an inelegant tongue issue divine demands to monarchs and utter divine commands to Jews? 

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

Yet, for some reason, this impediment did not disqualify Moses from his mission. Evidently, his unusual mix of noble character traits was so rare that, despite his impairment, he was still best suited for these great tasks. He may not have been perfect, but he was still the best option. 

It is odd, then, that God didn’t miraculously heal his condition. After all, God pulled out “all stops” and performed epic and dramatic miracles to emancipate us from Egypt. Wouldn’t it have also made sense to repair Moses’s tongue, empowering him to speak more capably?

The small act of improving Moses’s speaking abilities would have gone a long way toward improving his ambitious agenda, yet God preserved Moses’s speech impediment, dispatching him to his duties without impressive rhetorical skills. Evidently, Moses’s speech limitations did not impair his mission but, if anything, enhanced it. Had Moses been a better orator, perhaps he would have been a worse leader. His impairment was an asset. 

MOSES RELEASED us from Egypt and defeated the greatest superpower on Earth, eventually navigating the Jewish people to the doorstep of history and the entrance to the Land of Israel. Along this journey, he performed dazzling miracles and astounding supernatural feats. 

His rising popularity and expanding influence invited the unhealthy prospect of a cult of personality. Having been enslaved for two centuries, the former slaves were especially vulnerable to the influence of charisma and the peddling of personality. The impressionable young nation could very easily have been captivated by charisma rather than being educated by values. The human imagination is always tempted by charisma, and Moses’s spectacular feats, coupled with the gullibility of a young nation, created a perfect storm for a personality cult. 

Retaining Moses’s imperfect speech averted this danger. Our speech conveys ideas, but it also projects our personality and our charisma. Speech without character and without passion is hollow and boring. Potent speech, imbued with a powerful spirit, grips a listener and penetrates the soul. 

However, at some point, fervent rhetoric conveys too much of own personality and enchants us with the speaker rather than with some larger idea or content. Moses’s flawed speech assured that his charisma would never overtake his content. No one would ever be impressed with Moses’s eloquence or with his underdeveloped rhetoric, but instead, would be attracted to his nobility of character, his quiet humility and his uncommon compassion.

He would model moral traits such as courage, faith, dedication to the nation, tolerance, and of course, dedicated Torah scholarship. Though he may never deliver booming speeches, he will provide powerful but hushed moral lessons. There will be no cult of personality surrounding a speech-challenged leader. There will be, however, deep values, profound role modeling and enduring education. 

Additionally, Moses’s muted speech assures that a different voice will reverberate – the heavenly one. Moses delivered the direct word of God by brokering mass revelation at Sinai. That seminal moment at Sinai, when we heard the direct voice of God, forms the cornerstone of the Jewish faith. For faith to endure, the accuracy of that mountain conversation must be unmistakable. 

The Jews at Sinai must be absolutely certain that they were listening directly to God and not to a prophetic translation. Without that absolute certainty, Jewish faith would never survive. If Moses were a more seasoned orator, the directness of our encounter with God could have been questioned. Perhaps the commandments were a product of Moses’s imagination, or just flowery rhetoric, rather than a direct missive from God. By positioning a heavy-tongued speaker on top of the mountain, it was clear that all the content at Sinai was delivered from heaven. 

Sinai was based on the absolute facts of direct revelation rather than on speculation, prophecy or human projection. Ironically, Moses’s speech limitations made it easier to separate these facts from Moses’s personality. 

The struggle to separate fact from personality

IN THE 21st century, we face our own struggle to separate fact from personality. It has become more and more difficult to obtain accurate information untainted by personal opinions. Social media has altered the flow of information by providing a universal platform for strongly held opinions. Social media provides an endless buffet of personal opinions, but there isn’t much fact on the menu.

Furthermore, by carefully curating and selecting our sources of information, we trap ourselves in echo chambers, listening only to the views of those we agree with and rarely encountering different views. 

News outlets are no longer information providers but rather are loud and fanatical megaphones, patriotically broadcasting political agendas. In this storm of swirling opinions, it is impossible to discern honest facts from personal observations. In the past, humanity had little need for “fact checkers,” as accuracy was implicit in conversation. Our dependence upon fact checkers who are assigned to monitor accuracy is a sad reflection of the sunken state of human communication in the modern world of polarized outlooks.

Tragically, we become our own greatest victims. Honesty and deception are each contagious. The more honest our outside world is, the more honest our internal world becomes and the more accurate we are in self-assessment, self-awareness and personal growth. Living in a world in which opinions masquerade as fact erodes our ability to honestly assess our own experiences and behavior. Intellectual honesty and personal honesty have become rare commodities in a world that distorts fact and fiction. 

It is important to restore the balance between fact and opinion. It is vital to write and speak in a balanced fashion and present facts apart from opinions. We should value those who offer their opinion but also allow that other opinions can be drawn from identical facts. We should listen to those who suggest rather than those who attempt to convince or indoctrinate. We should value inner wisdom, not cheap opinion.

We need more quiet people like Moses and fewer shrill bullhorns.  

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as an MA degree in English literature from the City University of New York.