At the beginning Parashat VaEira, Hashem appears to Moshe Rabbeinu for a second time and instructs him to lead his people out of their servitude in Mitzrayim. Moshe immediately becomes defensive and tries to find an excuse to get out of the job. Moshe explains that “Hein Bnei Yisrael Lo Shame’u Eilai, VeEich Yishma’eini Phar’oh,” “Behold, the Children of Israel have not listened to me, so how will Par’oh listen to me” (Shemot 6:12). Moshe also mentions to Hashem that he has a speech impediment that prevents him from serving as a great leader. Moshe’s objections to Hashem’s instructions make him appear as an extremely hesitant and unconfident person. Only after six long days of debates and a compromise that Aharon will be his spokesman does Moshe finally agree to accept the role as Bnei Yisrael’s leader.
A comparison between Moshe’s actions in this week’s Parashah to some of his earlier actions raises a glaring question. In Parashat Shemot, we read that Moshe saw an Egyptian man striking a fellow Jewish man, and he responded by striking down the Egyptian man, killing him on the spot (2:11-12). From this episode, it appears that Moshe is an unhesitant, confident, and decisive person. He puts the concerns of his brethren before his own and genuinely feels bad about the tremendous pain that they are experiencing. Moshe does not ask anyone else to assist him in the matter or shy away from the situation. He stands up for what he believes is right and puts an abrupt end to the injustice being served to the Jewish man. Moshe knew of the repercussions that he would have to face, but that did not stop him from doing what was right. Later on, when Moshe arrives in Midyan, he sees that the local shepherds are not allowing Yitro’s daughters to draw water from the well. He rushes to their aid and drives the shepherds away (2:17). In both instances, Moshe is unafraid to stand up for what he believes is just.
From these two instances, Moshe appears to be a perfect candidate for Bnei Yisrael’s leader. One would have expected him to seize the opportunity to save the Jews from Par’oh’s cruelty immediately after being asked to do so by Hashem. Yet, Moshe attempts to evade this seemingly amazing opportunity. Before Moshe’s two heroic actions, nobody instructed him to act as he did, yet he took action on his own. Therefore, why is Moshe so reluctant to be the leader of Bnei Yisrael, even upon Hashem’s request? Why does Moshe not act confidently like he did when killing the Egyptian and saving Yitro’s daughters?
At first glance, it seems that Moshe uses his speech impediment as an excuse to not go to Par’oh. However, a closer look at the text reveals that Moshe is very concerned that he is an unqualified public speaker. His previous acts of heroism were dependent on his actions. On the contrary, Moshe is now asked to be the public speaker and advocate for Bnei Yisrael. Although Moshe understands that becoming the nation’s leader is the right thing to do, he does not believe that he will be able to inspire the people through his mediocre speaking abilities. He therefore tells Hashem that he is not the right man for the job, as this job requires tremendous verbal skills.
When Moshe finally agrees to become the nation’s leader, Hashem teaches Moshe many physical signs which will convince Bnei Yisrael that he is the proper leader. Moshe certainly prefers physical acts of greatness to verbal persuasion. The climax of Moshe’s tenure as leader of Bnei Yisrael comes during the splitting of the Yam Suf, quite possibly the greatest show of physical force the world has ever known.
Moshe Rabbeinu’s downfall comes as a result of his inability to transition from a physical leader to a verbal leader. After Miryam’s death, the Jews run out of water. Following abundant complaints by the people, Hashem commands Moshe to take his staff and speak to a rock so that it will give forth water; however, Moshe strikes the rock (BeMidbar 20:1-11). He reverts back to the form of leadership with which he is most comfortable and blatantly disregards Hashem’s instructions. As a result, Moshe is punished by being stripped of permission to enter the land of Israel (20:12).
We learn from Moshe’s leadership that while our actions are important, our words can have a much larger effect on the world. We should always strive to use our words to improve the world.