Parashat Vaera begins with God’s command to Moshe to convey to Benei Yisrael His promise of redemption. The Torah then tells that these promises fell upon deaf ears: “Moshe spoke thus to the Israelites, but they did not listen to him, due to shortness of spirit and harsh labor” (6:9). Thereafter, God instructs Moshe to go to Pharaoh to once again demand that he allow Benei Yisrael to leave. Moshe then says to God, “If the Israelites did not listen to me, how will Pharaoh listen to me?!” (6:12).
Many commentators have noted the obvious flaw in Moshe’s argument. The Torah made it very clear why Benei Yisrael did not listen to him: “due to shortness of spirit and harsh labor.” Their spirits were crushed by the dashing of their hopes for redemption, and their bodies were broken by the grueling labor they were forced to perform. Under such circumstances, they could not possibly be encouraged by Moshe’s promises of freedom and of a new life in their ancestral homeland. Why did the people’s cold response suggest that Pharaoh would also refuse to listen to Moshe? What did one have to do with the other?
One answer that has been suggested lies in Moshe’s conclusion when responding to God: “va-ani aral sefatayim” – “and I have impeded speech.” Moshe’s claim was that he was not skilled in the art of rhetoric and persuasion. Both Benei Yisrael and Pharaoh needed to be convinced of something which ran in direct opposition to their most natural instincts. Benei Yisrael needed to be assured that although Moshe’s initial attempt to secure their release resulted in more severe conditions, they would nevertheless soon be freed. And Pharaoh needed to be shown that he did not have the right to enslave and oppress another nation. Moshe’s argument was that just as his disability made it impossible for him to convince Benei Yisrael, it would likewise make it impossible for him to convince Pharaoh.
In the end, of course, it was God who persuaded both Benei Yisrael and Pharaoh. Pharaoh was forced to relent and free Benei Yisrael, who naturally came to believe in God’s promises and followed Him into the wilderness toward the Land of Israel.
Significantly, the process of change did not occur through skilled rhetoric, by way of inspiring and uplifting speech. Rhetoric can certainly be a valuable and important asset, but we might learn from the story of the Exodus that it is not always the most critical factor, or the most dependable means of being influenced. It was specifically Moshe Rabbenu, an “aral sefatayim,” who led the process of changing Pharaoh’s heart and changing the hearts of Benei Yisrael. Eloquence and oratory skills are useful, but not always indispensable. We must recognize our ability to grow, change and improve even when we are not dazzled or inspired by a gifted orator, because growth and change must ultimately originate from within our own minds and hearts, from our own firm and determined resolve to improve.