Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 25 January 2020 / 28 Tevet 5780

Parshat Vaera

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Library Library Library

Wisdom and Eloquence

Moshe and Aharon continue their joint mission of redeeming the Jewish People. This mission included communicating G-d’s message to the Jewish People and a great deal of interaction with Pharaoh.

At two points, Moshe raises the concern of his lack of eloquence. When G-d appoints him as leader, he resists, saying, I am not a man of speech…for I am heavy of speech and heavy of tongue. (Shemot 4:10). G-d responds, first by declaring that it is G-d who gives the gift of speech, but when Moshe demurs again, G-d responds that Aharon will join his mission as the spokesman: [Aharon] will speak to the people on your behalf… he will be a mouth for you. (Shemot 4:16) Later, when Moshe expressed his concern that Pharaoh would not listen to him on account of his speech impediment, G-d again responded: You shall say everything that I command you, and your brother Aharon shall repeat it to Pharaoh. (Shemot 7:2).

This arrangement — the division of teaching and oratory — has endured in the transmission of Torah throughout our history. From the beginning, the spoken word in the service of Torah had a dual function: (a) the precise, complete and faithful formulation of content and (b) presentation of this content to the people in such a way that it will be listened to, understood and taken to heart. Our Sages divided these functions much as Moshe and Aharon did. The role of the Chacham, the wise scholar, was to carefully and accurately formulate the content to be transmitted; the role of the meturgeman was to present to the people that halachic content in an easily comprehensible and explanatory form.

Likewise, the text of the Talmud itself is divided into two categories: the shemaitita, the content and analysis of the law, and aggadeta, the non-legal texts comprised of anecdotes, moral exhortations and practical advice. The main function of the first category is the precise and rigorous definition of the law, while the function of the aggadeta is to win the hearts of the listeners so that they understand and carry out the tasks assigned to them in the mitzvot.

Both components are critical for transmission of Torah. The content of Torah requires clarity and precision; the delivery of Torah requires eloquence.

However, the orator has several occupational hazards. In his effort to win the hearts of his audience, he may allow their views to penetrate the truth he wishes to impart, in order to suit it to their taste. He may sidestep the stringency of that truth, spoil its purity with foreign ideas, or resign himself to concessions in order to facilitate its acceptance. He also runs the risk of being high in volume and low in content.

Charisma and showmanship can serve a great function as the conduit of transmission to the heart, but they must be kept in check by wisdom. Rarely are eloquence and wisdom found in equal degrees in the same person. Thus, the division between them among leaders — as modeled by Moshe and Aharon — provides a critical check and balance to ensure that the content remains pure and true before the orator is entrusted to transmit it.

  • Sources: Commentary, Shemot 4:15-16

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