The Messenger Who Can’t Speak (Pesach 5779)

By Andrés Spokoiny

Do you think that leaders who are assertive, self-assured, speak clearly, and “call a spade a spade” are better leaders?

Think twice.

Harvard professor and author Steven Pinker shows that there’s a direct correlation between simplicity of speech and violence. He researched something called “integrative complexity,” which captures the sense of intellectual balance, nuance, and sophistication people’s speech, especially leaders. “A passage that is low in integrative complexity,” says Pinker, “stakes out an opinion and relentlessly hammers it home, without nuance or qualification. Its minimal complexity can be quantified by counting words like ‘absolutely, always, certainly, definitively, entirely, forever, indisputable, irrefutable, undoubtedly and unquestionably.’ On the other hand, a passage will get a higher level of integrative complexity if it uses subtlety, acknowledges two points of view, discusses connections, trade-offs, and compromises. In general it will rate higher if it uses terms like usually, almost, but, however, and maybe.

According to Pinker’s research, whenever “integrative complexity” in political speech declines, war, violence, distress, and hardship follows.

The Passover story confronts two leaders in the opposite extremes of the “integrative complexity” scale.

On one end of the scale, we have Moshe, who is “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). This description is generally understood as stuttering or some other speech impediment. Moshe also says he has “uncircumcised lips” (Exodus 6:12), which may symbolize incomplete, rough speech.

There’s something really puzzling about God choosing a messenger who can’t speak. It’s like choosing an accountant who’s a great guy but isn’t very good with numbers.

Unless, of course, the brokenness of his speech, the stammering, the self-doubt, are part of the message that God is trying to convey.

Moshe is the opposite of what we’d consider a “strong leader”: he’s consumed by self-doubt. He tells God that he’s unqualified to lead the Hebrews; he doesn’t think they’ll follow him; he fears he won’t be able to twist Pharaoh’s arm. God tries to reassure Moshe over and over but his timidity can’t be assuaged. Moshe is not just timid; he’s a fragmented being. Maybe, as Dr. Avivah Zornberg suggests, he can’t speak because there’s too much in him: too many identities, too many languages claiming him.

Moshe wrestles permanently with his own identity; when God chooses him, his first reaction is to say “Mi Anokhi,” “who am I?!” (Exodus 3:11). This may mean “who am I to lead” but may also mean exactly what it says: that he doesn’t really know who he is. Is he an Egyptian prince? A Hebrew slave? A Midianite shepherd? A leader of multitudes, or a quiet, contemplative desert dweller?

On the other end of the scale, we have Pharaoh: the man-god, the master of self-assuredness, the one who speaks with clarity and authority. While Moshe had asked God, “Who am I” that I should lead, Pharaoh asks himself, “Who is the Lord that I should listen to him.” (Exodus 5:2). Referring to Pharaoh, the Midrash Aggadah makes a play on words: Exodus 1:13 records that Egypt enslaved the Hebrews “befarekh” (cruelly), but the midrash reads a space into the word, to get “befeh rakh” (with a smooth mouth). Pharaoh’s speech is not faltering, broken, or heavy like that of Moshe; it’s smooth, complete, sure, and strong.

While we mortals tend to love “strong leaders,” God chooses Moshe – the fragmented, the insecure, the fighter of internal battles, the one consumed by doubt – not the one who speaks “with a smooth mouth.” God seems to like the leader who’s capable of living in uncertainty, in mystery, in doubt, the one who embraces the gaps in his soul and, like Moshe, acknowledges the gaps in his speech. God loves the one who knows his incompleteness and accepts the patchiness of his personality.

Pharaoh’s self-assuredness generates only contempt in God; his speech is as his heart: hardened like rock. Pharaoh is a prisoner of his own certitude, a pathetic believer in his own infallibility. Nothing, not even the plagues, can dent the armor of his haughtiness. Egypt can die around him, but his speech won’t falter; his self-confidence won’t crack.

The contrast between Moshe and Pharaoh seems, today, more relevant than ever. We live in times of extremely low “integrative complexity.” Political leaders speak only in superlatives; they disdain subtlety as a form of weakness; they think that acknowledging that they don’t have all the answers makes them look fragile; they believe that “the base” wants them to show absolute certainty and unbreakable self-assuredness. They repeat over and over that they’re indispensable, or that “only I can fix this”; and everything they do is not just good but “the best ever.”

But our leaders didn’t emerge in a vacuum. Be honest: if Pharaoh and Moshe were to run in your country’s election, who would you be drawn to vote for? Our society is becoming allergic to nuance and self-doubt. We use communication tools that don’t allow for complexities and fine distinctions. You can’t do complex in Twitter’s 280 characters, and when the 15 minutes of a TED talk are all you have, there’s no room for competing visions or uncertainty. The economic model of media outlets reinforces this fallacy of certainty. Imagine if an economic pundit said the truth; it’d sound something like, “Listen folks, the economy today is really too complex for anybody to predict; I can tell you what I think, but statistically, it’s almost sure that I’m wrong.” How many people would tune in to listen? Virtually nobody posts on Facebook an image of self-doubt; instead, there’s an arms race of fake happiness and forced smiles galore. Our leaders are not an aberration, but an exaggerated and grotesque manifestation of the things we all value together, as a society.

And yet, if we ever needed to assume our incompleteness, we do now. We live in times of unprecedented change. The social and economic order, and even the human condition itself, are being transformed beyond recognition. The 21st century didn’t come with a user’s manual and we are all faltering, guessing, trying to understand a reality full of uncertainties and question marks.

The story of Pharaoh tells us that whenever somebody speaks with utmost certainty and self-righteousness, the danger signs need to flash red. The evil king teaches us to be aware of the too-smooth, of those who claim infallibility. It was true throughout history and it’s true now.

Most importantly, Pharaoh teaches us not to become like that ourselves. This message is especially relevant for us funders, who far too often pontificate rather than listening and impart wisdom rather than acquiring it.

Pharaoh, with his smooth speech and his delusions of infallibility, went down the gutter of history, but from the gaps and blanks of Moshe’s faltering speech emerged a small people that is still transforming the world and a book that became the one of the cornerstones of the world. Only he, from the depths of his vulnerability, could be the vehicle to our freedom. Only he, the paragon of self-doubt, could liberate us from our false certainties and our dreams of perfections. Only the royal-Egyptian-Midianite-Hebrew, the questioner of his own identity (who am I?), could guide us in our own internal wrestling, and lead us to a covenant at Sinai that embraces the multiple voices of our people.

The smooth voice Pharaoh is no more, but the voice of the messenger who couldn’t speak is with us still, giving us comfort, freedom, and hope.

Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO, Jewish Funders Network.