Parshat VaErah: But I’m Still Crying

When my kids were little, each of them would show being upset in unique ways.  As toddlers, it was always interesting to watch them find their ‘upset’ voices.  One of my daughters would throw tantrums in front of the freezer, crying for an ice cream bar, one of my sons would go to his room and punch his pillows while another would retreat into a game and withdraw completely… each child explored their own authentic ‘something’s wrong’ expression.  

My husband and I welcomed all of this. We watched each child explore how to be upset, and how to communicate being upset.  Interestingly, one of our sons was conflicted about how to do this–how to be upset, and how to show being upset, that is.  You see, he wasn’t sure whether it was enough to simply be upset if his parents didn’t notice that he was upset.  In other words, was being upset a release in and of itself, or was it necessary to have us notice he was upset, and relate to his moment?  Put more broadly, can I be the victim if you don’t know I’m the victim?

Whenever something happened to my son, at all of three years old, he would come to my husband and me to tell us he’s crying –just in case we didn’t notice.  After checking what had happened, and concluding everything was fine, we’d tell him that we’re sorry he’s upset, but really nothing wrong had happened, everything was fine, and he should go back and play.  He would leave our room quietly, and just when everything seemed to be fine, he would reappear in our room and announce, ‘I’m still crying’, and leave the room again.  Every few minutes he reappeared in our room to tell us he was ‘still crying’.  It didn’t matter how many times we tried explaining that everything was fine and that there was no reason to be upset, because he would still appear and reappear to let us know he was ‘still crying’. 

To be clear, these weren’t moments of intense crying or uncontrollable tantrums, it was more gentle weeping.  Each time we would follow him, we would find him at the bottom of the stairs, kneeling on one step with his head cradled in his arms on the step above quietly crying.  Scooping him into the arms of a parent and softly reassuring him that we see he’s upset, and everything’s ok, would always bring him back to smiles and laughter.  It occurred to us, much later, that we misunderstood his messaging.  When he would come and complain about something that happened, he didn’t want us to correct the problem, he wanted us to notice him through the problem.  He didn’t want justice, he wanted our eyes on him, our comforting arms, our sheltering assurances — his three year old self needed to know we thought he mattered, because something made him feel vulnerable.

As parents, we want to fix the world for our children.  We want every injustice to be corrected, and anyone who hurt our child to be held accountable.  As a parent, the problem is not that someone wronged my child, the problem is that my child got hurt. From my point of view, the hurt itself is the problem and it should be met with justice.  But we know the world doesn’t work that way, and that we do a disservice to our children if we insinuate they should search for absolute justice or accountability in their lives.  We learn this from this week’s Torah parshah.

This week’s parshah, VaErah, is filled with grandeur and impactful moments as we watch the plagues of Egypt start. Each plague fills our imagination, invites our interpretations and explanations of God, history, theology, justice, freedom — all the huge philosophical concepts packed into each plague.  But, before it all begins, Moses is trying to get God to notice something, and God is not paying attention to it.

When God first tells Moses to go and tell Pharaoh to send Israel out of Egypt, Moses tells God he’s worried about speaking to Pharaoh because “I am of uncircumcised lips”.  This phrase is usually translated as “I am a man of impeded speech”… but Moses didn’t say he has a speech impediment, he expressed a concern about his lips that, well, we don’t quite understand. 

Technically, the word Moses is using in Hebrew is the word for a covering, so he seems to be expressing something about not communicating with transparency (I am interpreting this because we don’t actually know what he means).  The midrash accounts for this by describing a scenario back when Moses was a baby, where Pharaoh’s sorcerers told him that Moses could be the one to rebel against Pharaoh and free the slaves (never underestimate the power of ancient sorcerers).  And so, they devised a test to know whether Moses was to lead a rebellion or not.  Two bowls were placed in front of baby Moses, one containing jewels (representing the crown of Egypt) and one containing burning coals (representing the workers of Egypt).  If Moses reaches for the jewels, then he intends to usurp the crown, and should be executed.  If he reaches for the coals, then he intends to support the slave labour structure of Egypt, and can live.  The test is set up, and Moses, being a baby, reaches for the shiny jewels.  Moses’ guardian angel sees this and pushes Moses’ hand to the coals, which he grabs and puts in his mouth (as babies will do with anything).  According to this midrash, Moses’ mouth is burned and scarred by the coal, which saved his life, but results in a lifelong stutter.  This midrash is why many people think Moses had a stutter, however, the Torah text never tells us of a stutter, it only tells us that Moses said he has ‘uncircumcised lips’.

Interestingly, this is the only thing Moses says to God about speaking to Pharaoh, and God ignores it, maintaining that Moses should go to Pharaoh all the same.  God outlines the people, and the structure, and repeats the mission, but Moses repeats only one thing back: “Behold, I have uncircumcised lips”.  The one thing Moses tried to communicate earlier that God didn’t address.  Moses has told God he feels most vulnerable when asked to speak, and yet God keeps telling him to go speak to Pharaoh.  In the greater scheme of the clash of the gods that is about to begin in Egypt, Moses has asked God to see him, and God looked past him to the greater picture.

The second time Moses mentions his uncircumcised lips, God tells him he is sending Aaron to be his spokesperson, if needed.  But why not just fix the problem?  If Moses stutters, God should take away the stutter, if Moses feels he isn’t a good communicator, God should make him the greatest speaker that ever lived.  After all, this is God — fix the problem!

Instead, God lets Moses know he’s been heard, and God will support him to get past his moment of vulnerability.  Moses feels he can’t do it, so God accepts that he feels that way, and shows him he has God’s support — but God is not there to fix all our perceived shortcomings.  

In the end, Moses communicates brilliantly to both Pharaoh and Israel.  Never will he be asked to repeat anything or will anyone say they couldn’t understand what he was saying.  He thought he couldn’t do it, but there was actually nothing to fix, everything was fine.

There are moments in our lives when the grandeur of what is happening sweeps us away.  There are plagues and illnesses that make us take our eyes off the individuals, the quiet voices, the vulnerable person who might not have the courage to tell us ‘I’m still crying’.  Pharaoh and God will sort everything out between them, it is Moses’ voice that reminds us to always listen to anyone who feels vulnerable, justified or not, and always provide the support they need.

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