A year ago I came to visit our wonderful school for the first time. I was ushered between services, classrooms, and meetings with teachers, parents, and staff. As you can imagine, it was a lot to take in. In the midst of this whirlwind tour was a visit to our Early Childhood Center (ECC) to witness the Monday morning Havdallah celebration. The students were attentively moving through their routine when we arrived at the Shema. This Tefillah is usually one of the first learned by young Jews, and according to tradition, the last words a person should say on their death bed. The Shema is the one line creed of monotheism. We teach that we cover our eyes so that we can be in our own private space. In the ECC all of the students got their “Shins” ready, using the three middle fingers on their hands, cupped their ears to show that they knew that Shema means to listen, and then covered their eyes to recite this line. I fell in love with these students and found it inspiring that at such a young age they were already so attuned to the meaning of the line. Yes, this line expresses our belief in one, singular God, but more profoundly, it calls on each of us to listen and hear.
In our Parshah this week, Moses is attempting to cajole the Israelites into formation in order to leave Egypt. He is set to serve as their leader, but is met with a few challenges. In parshat Vaera, Moses is given a message from God to share with the Israelites, but as we learn in chapter 6, verse 9, “When Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses…” After his message falls on deaf ears, Moses is hesitant to go and speak to Pharaoh, giving to God the excuse that “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of uncircumcised lips!” Moses is frustrated; he’s been speaking, but no one is listening, and if they are listening, they do not appear to really hear or understand what he’s saying.
The Sfat Emet, the late 19th century commentary by Aryeh Leib Alter of Poland, interprets Moses’ words as a poignant moment in leadership. He teaches that if the Children of Israel refuse to listen to their leaders, then their leaders cannot speak. Thus, the would-be spokesperson’s lips are turned into “uncircumcised lips.” This implies that leaders can only truly lead if they are listened to. Without an audience, a leader has no followers.
In our daily lives, we seem to be good at giving our attention to whomever is speaking, but how much do we actually hear? Our parshah teaches about Moses’ “uncircumcised lips;” he has a message, but his mouth is unable to share it without assurance that it will be heard. It also appears that the Israelites have uncircumcised ears. They are unable or unready to heed God’s message, to truly hear what their mission is. Perhaps this moment in our narrative teaches us that we have a double duty. Our task is to open our ears, hone our listening skills, make our Shin, and really hear what we are being called to achieve. Once we have done this, our lips will be opened, and we too can become leaders like Moses. We must be able to both listen to one another and speak up for those who have yet to have their lips opened.
Moses heeded God’s call and answered. Our challenge is to hear the calls of those around us and answer with actions, love, and blessing.
Family Discussion Questions:
- Our ethical covenant teaches us that we must respect others through Shmiat HaOzen, a listening ear. How do you make sure that you not only listen to others, but also hear their message?
- What are some ways you can be a better listener so that family members and friends don’t speak with “uncircumcised lips”?