Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Power of Introverts

23 Tevet 5773 / Jan. 4-5, 2013

This week, we enter the Book of Exodus (book #2 of 5 in the Torah), and we find that a new Pharaoh has come to power in Egypt.  This new Pharaoh seems to have some issues with short term memory, as he has forgotten (ignored?) the good that Joseph did for Egypt, and in turn, enslaves the Israelites (he’s afraid that due to their birthrates, they’ll take over Egypt!).  He even goes so far as to decree that newborn Israelite males should be killed!

With this as our backdrop, we’re introduced to Judaism’s most cherished prophet, Moses.  As a newborn, Moses’s mother hid him for three months to keep him alive, and then proceeds to put him in a basket and floats him down the Nile.  Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the basket, decides the keep the baby, and Moses’s sister, Miriam, who was watching from afar, offers to go find a Hebrew wetnurse for the baby.  Pharaoh’s daughter accepts, and Miriam brings Moses’s mother – so, it’s Moses’s mother who actually nurses Moses as an infant!  Once weaned, Moses is brought back to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he is raised as a prince of Egypt.

One day, Moses finds an Egyptian mercilessly beating a Hebrew, and comes to the Hebrew’s defense, killing the Egyptian and hiding his body in the sand.  The next day, Moses learns that Pharaoh has found out and wants Moses dead; so Moses runs away.

Moses camps beside a well in the town of Midian, and rises to the defense of  7 women (sisters!) who were being harassed and driven away from the well, and then waters their flocks for them.  What a gentleman!  It turns out that these young women are the daughters of the priest of Midian, named Jethro.  Since no good deed goes unrewarded, Moses is given the eldest of Jethro’s eldest daughter Tzipporah, as a wife, and shortly thereafter they have a son named Gershom.

At this point, we learn that the new Pharaoh (who didn’t “know” Joseph) died (he’d be replaced by another Pharaoh), and this is when the Torah tells us that God took notice of the cries of the Israelites.

God appears to Moses via the burning bush and says to him:  “I will send you to Pharaoh and you shall free my people.”

Moses replies: “Who am I that I should be your messenger?  What if they don’t believe me?”

God provides Moses with a few different miracles he can show off to the Israelites so that they’ll believe him. 

Moses still protests: “But I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

God angrily replies: “Your brother Aaron can be your mouthpiece.”

Aaron meets Moses and they perform the signs for the Israelites, who believe them.  They then approach Pharaoh for the first time and ask for the Israelites to be allowed to go on a 3 day journey into the wilderness to worship God (implying that they’d then return to Egypt – not quite “let my people go!”).

In response, Pharaoh punishes the Israelites by making them go get the straw they need to make bricks (it had been provided until this point) and demanding the same quota.  The Israelites are far from thrilled about this.

Moses questions why God would do this.

God responds: Just wait and see… He’ll let them go…


Moses, our greatest prophet, was an introvert.  And yet, despite lacking the desire to speak publicly, Moses constantly showed his willingness to stand up for others.  From striking down the Egyptian who was beating the Hebrew to standing up for Jethro’s daughters at the well, Moses revealed that there are times when even those who are self-proclaimed introverts can, must, and do act to help others.

I’ve always found it fascinating that our most heralded prophet was actually an introvert, given the Jewish tradition of talking (and having excessive opinions!).  Moses is beloved not for what he says, but rather for what he does.  My guess is that this does not surprise Susan Cain, a former corporate lawyer and negotiations consultant, as her Ted Talk from February of 2012 focuses specifically on The Power of Introverts (watch it – it’s awesome!).  Cain points to examples of leaders who reluctantly took the spotlight (e.g. Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt), even though “every bone in their bodies was telling them not to.”

Too often as a society, we ascribe value to those who are outspoken.  The reality, however, is that those who speak the loudest are not necessarily the ones who speak the best (or possess the most wisdom).  Moses often didn't even speak publicly at all -- rather, he used his brother Aaron as his mouthpiece.

This Shabbat, consciously wait a few seconds longer than you normally would before responding to questions or interjecting thoughts into a conversation.  Make the space to reflect and contemplate.  Recognize that just because someone is quiet, this doesn’t mean that s/he doesn’t have valuable insights to add to the conversation.  Make an effort to provide the space and comfort for individuals who are more introverted to share their thoughts as well (if they’d like to), as we’ll all be better off as a result.

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