Sensitivity, Leadership and the Secret
He spoke slowly and deliberately. Every word
seemed carefully measured, as if he was being charged by
the syllable. Nothing more than necessary was said and nothing
less. Rarely did I hear a speaker so focused and precise.
Even more impressive was his refinement and
humility. He spoke about the challenges each of us face
– some of us are coming off personal loss, others
hurting from psychological scars and yet others challenged
by physical handicaps. The familiarity and empathy with
which he expressed the inner loneliness associated with
these wounds showed that he had suffered much in his life.
“Be patient with yourself,” he said, “don’t
rush things and don’t get caught up with the whizzing forces
around you. Let yourself be – and always know that you have
a beautiful soul inside of you, despite the outer scars
you may carry. When your skin gets burned it hurts, but
it doesn’t make you feel inadequate or unworthy. The same
is with our emotional pains and insecurities. They are what
they are, and do not reflect are your inherent value.”
As he concluded his moving talk, suddenly
and quite deliberately, he quickened the pace of his words.
“Now let me share with you my… li-li-li-li-li-little
s-s-s-secret,” he stammered, barely able to finish
the sentence. “From the time I was a li-li-li-ttle
child, I s-s-s-stuttered. But,” and he slowed down
again, “with hard work and patience I have learned
to control my inclination. You can too.”
He slowly walked away from the podium. The
entire audience sat stunned.
I felt so sad. I remembered a classmate who
stuttered. It would always break my heart to witness his
stammering voice, the facial contortions, struggling to
express himself. But then I remembered that this man just
spoke for 40 minutes expressing from the depths of his heart
a most powerful and needed message. “What a display
of courage?” I thought to myself. “What strength
of character to be so vulnerable in front of a crowd!”
* * *
Who was the first documented stutterer in
This week’s Torah portion tells us. Moses
is chosen by G-d to redeem the Jewish people from their
oppression under Pharaoh and the Egyptians. In his classical
dialogue with G-d, one that teaches us volumes, Moses resists
becoming G-d’s messenger.
Three times and with three different expressions
Moses declares that he cannot speak: “I am not
a man of words – not yesterday, not the day before,
not from the very first time You spoke to me. My speech
is difficult and my tongue is difficult” (Exodus
4:10). “The children of Israel did not listen to me. How
then will Pharaoh listen to me, seeing that I am of closed
Moses was the communicator par-excellence;
the one chosen to transmit the Torah to his generations
and generations to come. Why, of all people, did G-d make
it so that the ultimate communicator was “not a man
of words,” a man whose speech and tongue were “difficult”?!
Explains the Zohar (II 25b), that in the Egyptian
exile Moses’ “speech was in exile.” Moses,
who in his selflessness was a seamless channel for the Divine,
a totally integrated spirit and body, could not be duplicitous:
In a world of pain – a depraved Egyptian exile, imposing
slavery and genocide on an innocent people – Moses
transparently reflected the reality around him, and could
therefore physically not speak clearly; his “speech
was in exile” together with the people who were in
Egyptian exile. With suffering all around him Moses’
mouth was literally locked.
A more callous person, whose life does not
necessarily reflect the pain of others – can continue
speaking and pontificating even when he should be silent.
As we unfortunately see all the time how we can easily go
about smiling and celebrating while the city around us is
burning. People are usually out to protect themselves and
couldn’t care less about the suffering of others.
But Moses, the faithful shepherd, could not
rest when he witnessed others in pain. His physical body
ached and his mouth quivered from all the suffering the
Jewish people endured in Egypt.
On a spiritual level, the mystics explain
that in the root Moses originated from a dimension that
is beyond expression. Moses’ soul was from the hidden
world of “thought,” which cannot be expressed
in the revealed world of “speech.” Moses therefore
argued that he is not the person to redeem the people from
the conscious world (speech).
G-d, however, disagreed. “Who gave man
a mouth ... Is it not I, G-d? Now go, and I will be your
mouth and direct what you say” (4:11-12). Precisely
because Moses was the epitome of selflessness, because he
felt the pain of others and was a soul that transcended
expression (in words), therefore he was the one that G-d
chose to redeem the people from their exile.
And the power to do so came from the Divine
“I will be your mouth,” which imbued Moses with
the power to transcend his “stutter” and communicate
effectively with Pharaoh and finally free the Jewish nation
from the Egyptian exile.
Ultimately, once they were redeemed from their
misery in Egypt and they began integrating the Divine into
their material lives, Moses too was healed and was able
to express in words the deepest dimensions of the Divine.
In other words, a man of selfless bittul always
reflects the reality around him. In a world of suffering,
in exile, a schism develops between his thoughts and words,
and he falls silent. In a world of redemption he is becomes
channel between the supra-conscious world of thought and
the conscious world of words.
As we see that Moses becomes the greatest
communicator in all of history. Following the exodus from
Egypt, Moses receives the Torah at Sinai and proceeds to
teach it to the people. This man of “no words”
becomes the source of Divine words for all of time. An entire
book of the Torah is even named “Devorim” –
“these are the words that Moses spoke.” The
words of Moses, the man of “no words,” are remembered
forever. Is there anyone else in history whose every word
is known and analyzed as those of Moses in the Bible? How
many books and commentaries have been written to understand
every utterance that came out Moses’ mouth?
How is it possible that the most powerful
communicator is a man of “no words”? Because
true communication is not about brilliant ideas, eloquent
oratory skills, compelling presentations; it is about “bittul”
(selflessness), about recognizing that you are a transparent
conduit to convey a truth that is greater than yourself.
Moses epitomized this bittul; he was more of an absorber
of truth than a “speaker.” His transparency
was therefore the key to his communicative skills. See The
Art of Communication.
Everything about Moses manifested “bittul”
and sensitivity – as the chapter documents:
“Moses was a shepherd” (3:1): The Midrash
explains that G-d tests his leaders with sheep (as He later
does with David). One sheep once wandered away from the
entire flock. Moses sensed the missing sheep, and went searching,
only to find the young animal sipping water from a nearby
brook. Moses carried the sheep back to the flock. “Ahh,”
G-d’ said. “If Moses is that sensitive to a single sheep
amongst thousands, even when no one is watching, how much
more so he will be sensitive to my people. He is worthy
of being my chosen leader.
Earlier Moses witnesses an “Egyptian
kill one of his fellow Hebrews. He looked all around and
saw no one, then he killed the Egyptian” (2:11-12).
“He looked all around and saw no one” can be
interpreted to mean that he saw no one cared – no
one was concerned about the travesty being perpetrated against
their fellow men. Moses however did care.
So he proceeds to do what is necessary to protect innocent
people from brutal genocide.
The next day Moses sees “two Hebrew
men fighting.” “Why are you beating your brother?”
he asked them (2:13). Moses here too showed concern about
the divisiveness among the Hebrews – though he received
the classical response: “who made you our prince and
judge,” another way of saying mind your own business.
Ironically, in our information age, we have
much to learn from Moses. With all our amazing advancements
in communications technology, we have also an unprecedented
level of miscommunication – between spouses, parents
and children, neighbors, communities and nations. E-mail,
forums, IM, blogs, VoIP has turned everyone into pundits
– speaking and discussing about everything and nothing.
But are we really speaking? Are we really
communicating? Who is it that said “today people read
more and more about less and less?”
Moses may have been a man of “no words”
but he teaches us that speaking – true speaking –
is about communicating. And communicating is about listening
as much as (if not more than) it is about speaking. The
more transparent you are, the better your communication
will be. Conversely, the more your ego is in the way, the
less resonance your message will have. When your personality
stands between your message and the listeners then your
personality dilutes (and distorts) the message.
Most of us have been blessed with the power
of lucid speech. A great gift indeed. But do we use this
gift to communicate truth? Are our words kind and loving
and ones that elicit love? Are we able to convey in words
our innermost feelings and deepest spiritual desires? Or
are our words deceptive? How often do we lie? How often
do we use offensive language – words that hurt, divide
and conceal, rather than words that heal, unite and reveal?
Does our body’s speech speak the words of our soul?
Or is it the other way around: Our soul’s energy is
forced to speak the narcissistic words of materialistic
pursuits? Physically we may speak clearly, but spiritually
are we all not stuttering in one way or another?
As long as there is no seamlessness between
our spirits and our words we stutter along, once in a while
hopefully sharing a true word or two?
Stuttering is a reflection of a misalignment.
In our distorted world, where spirit and matter have yet
to fuse, where our material investments do not necessarily
mirror our soul’s needs, we all stutter.
We stutter in our search for love and intimacy,
we stutter through our fears and insecurities, and we stutter
when we are called upon to speak truth to our children and
students. We stutter when we need to show kindness to friends
and when we need to welcome and respect strangers.
The only difference is that some of us have
mastered the art of concealing our stutters beneath an elegant
“façade” of words. Whether it is the “gift
of gab” or excellent “sales skills,” “spin,”
“buzz,” “hype” or “hooks”
– we know how to convincingly “sell” something
even if it has no true benefit (or we know how to convince
ourselves that it has benefit even if it doesn’t).
Not to suggest that every “sale” is worthless,
but it’s a far cry from transparent selflessness.
We live in a world of politicians, actors,
models and performers – who pride themselves in their
ability to project all sorts of images and standards with
not the slightest stutter or blink.
Stuttering reflects the dichotomy of existence,
the split between the inner and the outer.
But stuttering has another side to it. Every
stutter is also a challenging opportunity to discover selflessness
(bittul), and a brilliance that transcends mere words (as
it was with Moses), as the stutterer in our opening story
demonstrated with his profound empathy.
This may also explain why stuttering affects
four times as many males as females. Brain scans show that
in women the connective tissue that allows communication
between the two hemispheres of the brain tends to be thicker,
perhaps facilitating interchange. In a study made by Simon
Baron-Cohen, the director of the autism research center
at Cambridge University and the author of “The Essential
Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain,”
he tries to explain that the brain structure in women may
be the reason why one study from Yale found that when performing
language tasks, women are likely to activate both hemispheres,
whereas males (on average) activate only the left hemisphere.
He goes on to argue that psychological tests
also reveal patterns of male/female differences. On average,
males tend to score higher on mechanics tests than females
do. Females, on the other hand, average higher scores than
males on tests of emotion recognition, social sensitivity
and language ability.
Many of these differences are seen in adults,
which might lead to the conclusion that all they reflect
are differences in socialization and experience. But some
differences are also seen extremely early in development,
which may suggest that biology also plays a role. For example,
on the first day of life, male and female newborns pay attention
to different things. On average, at 24 hours old, more male
infants will look at a mechanical mobile suspended above
them, whereas more female infants will look at a human face.
Girls tend to talk earlier than boys, and in the second
year of life their vocabularies grow at a faster rate. One-year-old
girls also make more eye contact than boys of their age.
Cohen summarizes these differences by saying
that “males on average have a stronger drive to systemize,
and females to empathize.”
Perhaps with their extra measure of empathy,
women can counter some of the stuttering effects of a systemized
universe out of touch with its soul.
Moses on the other hand, because of his absolute
empathy, actually absorbs and reflects the dichotomy of
the universe, in order to help repair it.
By introducing the soul into our lives and
its profound empathy we can redeem the forces that lock
our speech in “exile.” We can reveal the brilliance
that often lies concealed within the “stutters”
of our lives.
There is something compelling about silence.
Take silent films: With no sound to rely upon, actors have
to communicate with facial expressions and body language.
This is the first language that we all – as young
children – are exposed to. Only later do we learn
the language of words. Another way of putting it: Just as
white space is more important than the actual letters of
the printed word, the spaces and silence between words are
more critical than the spoken sounds.
“Just as it was in the days when they left
Egypt [so too in the future] I will show you wonders.” Let
us learn sensitivity from Moses how to heal a fractured
The lessons are simple but profound:
Never be complacent. Care about those around
you. Take a stand against injustice. Protect the innocent.
Fight those that are ready to hurt others. Show concern
and act forcefully in face of terrorism. Stand up against
any form of divisiveness.
Above all: be humble and sensitive.
Allow Moses into our lives and just as then,
so today, we will experience wonders.