MLK and a 19th-century rebbetzin teach us about confidence (Torah portion of Bo)

When I was in rabbinical school, I once attended a leadership training seminar in which all those who attended had to share one of their anxieties about assuming a position of  communal leadership.  When it was my turn, I mentioned that one of the things about which I was apprehensive was that it seems to me that religious leaders need to cultivate a charismatic speaking style and stage presence, and that was something that I thought did not come naturally to me.

Later on, in the presentation, the speaker addressed my concern and told us a story that was very new and surprising to me.  He said:  Everyone agrees that one of the greatest orators and leaders of the twentieth century was Martin Luther King.  But when Martin Luther King was a seminary student, he was preoccupied by what he perceived as a lack of dynamism in his speaking style.  He felt that he had a lot of ideas -- and a lot of leadership potential -- but he was unsure whether he would be able to transmit his message effectively enough to move people.  So one of his professors assigned him and some of his classmates to travel around to various small churches, and to get some experience in preaching on a regular basis.  Martin Luther King would later credit this experience as what truly taught him how to be a preacher and how to motivate a room of people.  He would say that his speaking style never came fully naturally to him; he always had to work at it.  But he knew that, if he wanted to accomplish the things that he felt God meant for him to accomplish, he would have to hone this skill, and he did.

[NOTE: Whereas this is the way that the story was relayed to me, I have since learned from Taylor Branch's masterful biography of Martin Luther King, Parting the Waters, that even though King wanted to expand his repertoire of speaking styles, he arrived to the seminary as an already talented orator, and he won several awards in preaching while a seminary student. He was also known in his college and seminary years as a person full of confidence.]

This story was stunning to me because I never would have imagined that great oratory skill didn’t come naturally to Martin Luther King.  And this story was important for me to help me to gain confidence in public speaking - something that I knew that, as a rabbi, I’d be called upon to do from time to time.

We find a similar insight at the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Bo, from the book of Exodus.  Our Torah portions are usually after the first significant word in the first verse of the Torah reading.  The Torah portion of Bo begins with the words:  vayomer adonai el moshe: bo el par’oh.  This is usually translated as:  “And God spoke to Moses and said:  Go to Pharaoh…[to tell him that if he doesn't let the Israelites go free, Egypt will be afflicted with another plague].”   The Hebrew word "Bo" is translated as the English word "go."  This is the way it is translated in just about every English version I have ever seen.

But there's one problem. The Hebrew word "bo" doesn't mean "go."  In fact, it means the opposite:  it means "come."  If God really wanted to say "go to Pharaoh," God would have said lech el par’oh.  The verse actually means, “come to Pharaoh.”  The difference in meaning is subtle -- but Jews have a long tradition of reading the Torah with a subtle eye.  What could this somewhat peculiar construction mean to us?

My favorite explanation for this peculiarity is given by the Rebbetzin Feige Levin of Bendin.  She was the daughter of the Hasidic master known as the Sefas Emes, who was a prominent Torah commentator in the late 19th century.  (It's exciting and somewhat unusual to find an early example of a woman in a traditional community who was a teacher of Torah and whose interpretations of the Torah were incorporated into traditional Jewish texts.  In her case, her interpretations are recorded in the writings of her husband, Hanoch Tzvi of Bendin, in his work called Yechahen Pe’er  יכהן פאר.)

According to Rebbetzin Feige Levin, God knew that appearing before Pharaoh was an exceptionally difficult task for Moses.  We know from elsewhere in the Torah that Moses had a speech impediment, and speaking in public was something that agonized him and made him very anxious.   In addition, it is presumably very difficult to appear before a major world leader and make a very unpopular request.  So Moses probably dreaded this task of pleading with Pharaoh.  But it was something that needed to be done, if Moses was to liberate his people from slavery.  For this reason, God says Bo el par’oh -  "Come to Pharaoh" - because the implication is "Come WITH ME to Pharaoh."
God says, "I know this is a very difficult thing for you to do.  I know it's something that makes you anxious and apprehensive.  But you should know that you're not going alone. Come with Me to Pharaoh, and I will be beside you the whole time, supporting you -- because this is the task to which I have assigned you."

Rebbetzin Feyge Levin and Martin Luther King both remind us that the things that God intends us to accomplish in our lives are very rarely the things that come most easily for us.  In fact, they are usually the things accompanied by maximum struggle and self-doubt.  One of the roles God plays in our lives is as the force that stands by our side and gives us the confidence and strength necessary to do the difficult things we know we ought to do, so we can best grow into the roles for which we are intended.


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