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Parashat Vaera: You, Too, Have a Voice

By Mark S. Young

King George VI: Listen to me! Listen to me!
Lionel Logue: Why would I waste my time listening to you?
King George VI: Because I have a voice!
King George VI: Because I have a voice!
Lionel Logue: Yes you do.
Lionel Logue: Yes you do.

On New Year’s Eve 10 years ago, my wife and I went to see “The King’s Speech,” the Academy Award-winning film about King George VI and his struggle with stuttering before and during his reign as the king of England on the eve of World War II.

Lionel Logue, the monarch’s irreverent, skilled, and kind coach, tirelessly practiced with him the exercises that would help the king speak without a stutter. More than that, Logue bolstered the king’s confidence in himself, convincing him that although his stutter was hard to hide, it was hardly his defining feature. In fact, with the support of both his wife and his coach, King George VI mustered the courage and humility to lead his country effectively through difficult times.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vaera (Exodus 6:2-9:35), God calls on the shepherd Moses to lead the Israelites, who have been enslaved for hundreds of years in Egypt by Pharaoh. Like King George VI, who ascended the throne only after his brother Edward abdicated to marry an American divorcee, the prophet Moses also questions his worthiness to lead in light of his own communication challenges: “But Moses appealed to the LORD, saying, ‘The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!’” (Exodus 6:12)

Many commentaries interpret this statement to mean Moses had a speech impediment or other communication challenge. Why, then, would God select a timid shepherd who believes he can’t communicate well to lead an entire people during a time of crisis? Isn’t this a risky move? Wouldn’t God and the Israelites be better served by a confident, charismatic leader without a speech impediment?

Rabbi Menachem Posner offers an interesting perspective on this question, sharing the commentary of the 14th-century sage Rabbi Nissim ben Reuben:

“Had Moses been an eloquent and gifted speaker, there would always be room for skeptics to claim that the Jewish people accepted the Torah, its truths and its mandates, only as a result of Moses’ charisma. After all, a glib, captivating speaker can convince people of just about anything. Now that it was actually a challenge to listen to Moses, it became eminently clear that we did not accept the Torah because we were wowed by Moses; we accepted the Torah because we were wowed by God.”

The importance of charisma is cited often when discussing leadership, especially during times of crisis and struggle. One might deduce that both charisma and an eloquent communication style are critical traits to lead an organization, a movement, or a nation successfully. Although these traits certainly can benefit leaders, the Israelites’ freedom from bondage and the United Kingdom’s victory in World War II show us otherwise. In fact, as Rabbi Nissim ben Reuben warns, charisma alone can be quite dangerous. To “convince people of just about anything,” right or wrong, especially during a crisis, can have significant, unintended consequences—some quite detrimental and potentially fatal.

Currently confronted by multiple plagues—COVID-19, economic and racial injustice, and increasing calamities arising from an ever-changing climate—what type of leadership do we need today? Political leanings aside, I find it absolutely fascinating that in the midst of these many crises, we are on the brink of inaugurating a new president who is so open about his challenges with stuttering. President-Elect Biden, like King George VI and Moses, has suffered and struggled to communicate. Despite these setbacks, by communicating truthfully, humbly, and resolutely throughout this time of crisis, he is now poised to hold the most powerful leadership office in the free world.

As we enter 2021, we are well aware that plagues have defined our recent experiences, but we also hold tight to tremendous hope and a true belief that anyone—great communicators and those with impeded speech—can lead effectively. May we all find the coaches, confidence, and courage to lead truthfully, with humility, and with resolve. Only then can we, individually and collectively, overcome the plagues in our midst to reach a new level of freedom, filled with peace, health, opportunity, and justice for all. Go out there and lead because you, too, have a voice!

Mark S. Young is director of JResponse® at JCC Association of North America and the author of “Bless Our Workforce.”


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