Friday, December 31, 2010

(Un) Circumcised Lips: Parashat Va-era

We all know about the importance of circumcision, more commonly known as a bris, in Jewish tradition. However, we generally think of circumcision in terms of one well-known body part. We do not know or think about the other types of circumcision discussed in the Torah. The Jewish people (in the physical case, men) are challenged not only to have an external circumcision, but also an internal one, a circumcision of the heart. This language is often used to signal the importance of humility and submission to the will of God and Law.

This week's portion, Va-era, not only talks about the aforementioned types of circumcision, but also speaks about the circumcision of the lips. When God tells Moses to come before Pharaoh, Moses responds:

ל וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה: הֵן אֲנִי, עֲרַל שְׂפָתַיִם, וְאֵיךְ, יִשְׁמַע אֵלַי פַּרְעֹה. 30 And Moses said before the LORD: 'Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips, and how will Pharaoh listen to me?
The commentators ask, "what does uncircumcised lips mean?" Some of the early commentators, connecting this verse to Moses' earlier refusal to speak at the burning bush, assert that this means that Moses had a stutter. Others claim that he was not skilled in the art of rhetoric.

However, the Zohar, the core mystical text of the Jewish tradition, provides an unique reading. Moses' voice and his ability to communicate meaning were in exile while the people Israel were in exile. When Moses was reunited with the people Israel, he regained his voice קול. When he, along with the people Israel, approached Mount Sinai he gained the ability to convey meaning דיבור.

Without Torah and community, Moses's lips were obstructed. His impediment was not physical, but spiritual. Only when living in the context of a community bound together through mitzvot, could he find the strength, skill, and words to speak eloquently and effectively.

Many individuals in this world are skilled orators. However, after the thrill of listening to such individuals address their audiences, the listeners are often left feeling empty. When one conveys a message that is substantive, inspired, truthful, authentic, and humble, her voice and meaning are united. Her ability to communicate is no longer exiled or obstructed, but rather can emerge unencumbered and at home with her.

Often humility is positioned in opposition to effective speaking. However, the Torah teaches us that without humility, our message can never be effective in bringing about change. This is one of the greatest challenges of human life and leadership. As we begin the secular new year, let us aspire to achieve the balance that Moses did at the foot of Mount Sinai -- connecting speech, meaning, and self for the sake of communal success and redemption.

Shabbat Shalom from Tel Aviv.

**And in the spirit of humility, thanks to Yeshivat Har Tzion for the inspiration and texts for these words of Torah. You can access the Hebrew article here.