New Year’s Resolution – Time to Speak Up

Sermon for Parshat Shemot
By Cantor Ben Kintisch

The New Year’s holiday has come and gone, and, well 5 days in, how are you doing? If you made a resolution, are you sticking to it? No judgement from me – I’m just a human boy person, and I am fallible, and I, too, have trouble making my plans turn real.

I understand that the most classic resolutions are “Lose some weight” and “Get more exercise.” Both result in dramatic upticks at local gyms and Weight Watcher meetings. I’ve seen it myself, as I’m an avid swimmer, and last Tuesday morning the CA swim center in Wilde Lake was twice as busy as I ever saw it in December.

So, I do hope that if you are trying to improve your health or your diet, you are able to do so. It is a laudable and worthy goal.

I think for many of us we share another different aspiration, perhaps not as frequently said aloud. We want to speak up for what is right. We hope that by speaking up we will make a real difference, helping to shape the opinions of others, to change hearts and minds, for a better community, for a more just and more perfect society at large.

But sometimes it can be hard to speak up. I understand that the act of speaking in public is, for many adults, as frightening as a natural disaster or even a terrible illness. Why is it so scary?

Well, when we speak our minds, when we share our heart’s deepest desires, we are making our ideas, and therefore ourselves, truly vulnerable.

What if we say the wrong things? What if our words are ignored, or worse, mocked? What if when we speak up, no one listens? What if when we give truth to power, we are dismissed as fools, or radicals, or naïve?

One of the greatest heroes of the Jewish tradition, Moses, had a hard time speaking in front of others. Depending how you read the Torah text, you can understand it as a phobia of public speaking, a severe case of anxiety, or a speech impediment.

This week’s portion is Shemot, and it contains several key stories in the Exodus of the Jews from slavery to freedom.

Relevant to this discussion is when God asks Moses to help rescue the Jews from bondage. Moses is reluctant – when God tells Moses “You need to speak up for the Israelites,” Moses answers that he cannot do so.

God helps him by appointing Aaron, his brother, as a spokesman of sorts. For the rest of the Exodus narrative, Moses remains our main human hero, while his brother handles the public speaking.

I think there are a few lessons here for us all.

One is that to be a great leader, we don’t necessarily have to possess lofty speech, or great oratorical skills. We can speak with words, we can speak through presence and we can speak through action. It’s just important that we communicate that we care to make a difference in this world for ourselves, our loved ones, our communities.

Also, Moses is such a huge hero, yet he also has this speech problem. I’ve heard this discussed quite a bit in the world of Jewish Special Education – a reminder that we all have something worthy to offer, even if we have certain disabilities, visible or invisible. So, if you think you are not worthy of the task, because of some real or perceived shortcoming, remember that Moses could hardly form a clear sentence, but he also led the Israelites to freedom.

Finally, God showed Moses that a good leader can’t do it alone. We’ve seen in the past tumultuous year the power of togetherness in resisting unpopular government policies. Do you remember, almost exactly one year ago, when the Muslim travel ban was instated, and thousands of lawyers and other citizen volunteers descended upon BWI, Reagan, and other international airports around the country? When many Americans were stuck, dumbfounded by the callousness of this new policy, these brave individuals spoke with their feet by showing up, they spoke with their lawyerly voices, and combined with hundreds and thousands of others, a true groundswell of opposition showed itself to be a force against our current administration.

In the new year, I hope we can all find it in ourselves to speak up for what is right. I hope we can believe in ourselves, even if we aren’t perfect. I hope we can speak through words, or deeds, or just by showing up. We don’t have to be Moses, but when we hear our name being called, I hope we can answer by saying “Here I am!” “Hineni” I’m ready to help.

Shabbat Shalom.