Encountering our frailties: a biblical appraisal

Frailty in its diverse forms and expressions is often misunderstood, neglected, and generally speaking, undesired. And yet, oddly enough, major biblical themes revolve around it, thus Moses: “Then Moses told the LORD, ‘Please, LORD, I’m not eloquent. I never was in the past nor am I now since you spoke to your servant. In fact, I talk too slowly and I have a speech impediment” (Exod 4,10 ISV translation). This quotation is referring to Moses’ objection to being asked to basically becoming God’s emissary to the mighty Pharaoh: a stuttering person who needs to have his brother around to ensure that he’s understood is not exactly the ideal person to be appointed ambassador and worst still, a political leader.

But this is precisely the point being emphasized by the text: God doesn’t necessary cure us of our handicaps; He did rather renovate them and transform us in the process. Frankly speaking, just imagine poor Moses encountering the Pharaoh in his great regal palace, stuttering out his demand: “L-l-let my p-p-p-p-people g-g-go!” Yes, it’s tempting to assume that this is a sarcastic divine twist, but the recently acclaimed “The King’s Speech” highlights an equivalent deduction: explore your weaknesses and you might be surprised how they can actually be transformed into strengths!

The Midrash ascribes this stuttering to a childhood incident involving scorching coal. Exceeding our objective, it’s actually the consequences that interest us: the resulting self-perceptions and lacking self-confidence. Moses appertained to the ruling class, geared to being successful. Something snapped along the way: exiled, he now finds himself tending his father-in-law’s sheep in the Sinai desert. Shattered self-confidence? Well, forty odds years tending sheep is not exactly what Moses would have imagined himself doing. Old age creeping in and he’s got very little to show for it – a mere shepherd tending someone else’s sheep!

One fine day – a day like any other really, something caught Moses’ attention, shaking him out of his pervasive silence: a burning bush that somehow wasn’t consumed! Approaching it someone pronounces his name, calling him to attention, revealing himself to be no other than the God encountered by his forefathers – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Recalling old experiences, God renews His promises (Exod 3,3-10) appointing Moses as His emissary. But Moses has other ideas: “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exod 3,11)

A stuttering not so young man, with little to show for himself is suddenly forced to confront himself: “Who am I?” God ignores him and moves on, not really caring to itemise his assets or abilities, as one might expect when someone’s sagging ego needs propping. Nothing of the sort: “I will be with you!” and what’s the pudding’s proof? Well, don’t worry, “once you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain” (Exod 3,11-12) – an ambiguous promise if ever there was one. So what’s the point? It doesn’t matter who Moses is, what matters is that God is with him.

Sometimes, conscious of our frailties and failures but little else besides, we too are trapped in ourselves unable to move forward. Craving something different we loose ourselves somewhere. But unless we encounter the silence within, it’s unlikely that we can listen to the echoing divine presence encircling us: a self-consuming unconsumed bush seeking to attract our attention. It doesn’t matter who we are, because what’s important is that God is with us as we seek to encounter ourselves.

As the story develops and the text enriches it with new insights, the stuttering Moses turns out to be a true leader: someone who suffers and struggles to communicate his ideals and his faith experience, but maybe that’s why God chose him. After all, as Ran the 14th century sage points out, to understand Moses’ stuttering it’s important to comprehend that his frailty served to strengthen God’s presence but in so doing, he also discovered himself.

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