Overcoming Self-Doubt

Moses's complaint and God's response teach us that despite our doubts and insecurities, we can, and should, work to accomplish our unique missions in life.

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Kaved in this verse literally means "heavy," and is sometimes also translated as "slow of mouth and slow of tongue," or something like that. Once again, it's not clear exactly what Moses

means; the only thing that's clear is that Moses thinks this condition disqualifies him from being God's agent in the task of confronting Pharaoh.

Nahum Sarna, a Biblical scholar, in his book Exploring Exodus: The Heritage of Biblical Israel, offers a third possibility. Moses grew up as an Egyptian, speaking the language of the land--perhaps he's trying to tell God that after so many years in the land of Midian, his fluency in Egyptian isn't what it used to be. Thus, he doesn't possess the language skills to engage in this task of high-level communication and negotiation.

After looking at the various interpretations of Moses's protests, Sarna does something unusual for a Bible scholar (whether of the old-time rabbinic variety or of the modern academic persuasion): he tells us that the exact nature of Moses's problem really doesn't matter at all. Moses felt inadequate to address Pharaoh as God's agent; God replies that it's God's words, not Moses's, that will be spoken. To quote Sarna:

“To this, God replies with what in effect is...the essence of Biblical prophecy. The chosen messenger conveys not his own word but the word of God, and he does so because he irresistibly compelled by a Force and a Will more powerful than his own. Prophetic eloquence is not a matter of native talent, but of revelation that derives from the supreme Source of truth that is external to the speaker.

“The facile talker, the golden-tongued, the consummate demagogue, is not the recipient of the prophetic word or the vehicle of its transmission. Prophetic eloquence is a divine gift bestowed for [a] purpose on him who is elected, often against his will, to be the messenger. In these circumstances, experience and talent are irrelevant qualities.”

To me, this explanation of Moses's protests is reassuring and discomforting at the same time. It's reassuring because we can take from it hope that indeed, despite our human limitations and frailties, we can accomplish our unique tasks in life. To be sure, most of us don't have a destiny as dramatic as Moses's, but each of us is commissioned for something, and given tools and talents and challenges to meet as best we can.

Moses, despite his absolutely extraordinary life, is also just like all the rest of us: called by God to be a partner in the work of Redemption, called by a God Who has faith in us even when we don't have faith in ourselves.

It's reassuring to think that God chose not the strongest or the fastest or the smartest or the most beautiful, but implanted Divine Truth into a person "slow of mouth and slow of tongue." If Moses could rise to the occasion and speak words to Pharaoh that would change the whole course of human history, then I too can rise to the occasion and express to the world whatever sparks of Divinity I have been given.

Yet this is exactly what is discomforting about these verses: they strip from us all our excuses, all our rationales for procrastination, all our lack of self-confidence masquerading as humility. By appointing Moses, the man of "uncircumcised lips," as a prophet-president-diplomat-preacher (i.e., a man completely dependent on words), God is telling the rest of us: you have to get on with your spiritual mission in life, despite your limitations, despite your self-doubts, despite all the problems that seem to be in the way.

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.