Sunday night is a special night in America. It’s Oscar night—the annual night when the Academy Awards are given for the best films of past year. Billy Crystal will host for the 9th time and it looks like a very promising evening. Last year’s winner was, of course, “The King’s Speech,” starring Colin Firth. In some ways the character he played reminds me of Moses. Moses was a prince in Egypt and became ruler of his people, while George VI was 1st a prince and then king of England at a crucial time in its history. They were both stutterers and both were afraid to undertake their tasks because of this handicap.
Moses pleaded with Gd: “Send someone else, send anyone else, but don’t send me, because I have a speech impediment.” King George felt the same way. When he was called upon to rally his people and inspire them to fight, he was reluctant for the same reason. How did they overcome this handicap? George VI had a great teacher—Geoffrey Rush—who gave him the courage and the ability to speak. But as far as we know, Moses didn’t have a speech coach to help him. So how did Moses overcome his impediment?
Rabbi Jack Reimer suggests that once he got started, he was so caught up in the task that he forgot that he was unable to do it. Once he began, he became so caught up in his cause, so involved in persuading Pharaoh to let his people go and so caught up in the task of teaching his people how to live…that he simply forgot that he couldn’t speak.
All of us have impediments. Some are the kinds that show on the outside and some on the inside. And when an enormous task is assigned to us, our 1st reaction is to say: “I can’t do it. Send someone else. I’m not good enough!” But, if we have enough courage to accept the assignment we can become so wrapped up in doing it that we forget that we can’t do it.
Do you remember the climactic scene in the movie in “The King’s Speech?” King George prepares to give the radio speech that he must give to his people in order to rally them for the war against Germany. He walks past hundreds of employees to the Broadcast room as the stirring music of Beethoven’s 7th plays in the background. His nervousness shows. Finally he enters a room where his speech teacher is waiting to help him overcome his stuttering and his fear. When he enters, someone draws the curtain. And for a few precious moments the curtained room gives him the privacy and the confidence to rise to the occasion. The curtain is then drawn back again, he comes out and he gives the magnificent inspirational speech that even he didn’t think he was capable of giving.
Moses had a similar experience. Where does Gd encounter Moses and persuade him to go back to Egypt and fight for his people? Gd speaks to Moses out of a burning bush in the middle of the wilderness where he’s all alone. Why? Perhaps because in the solitude of the desert Moses could find a private moment where he could come to grips with his doubts and insecurities.
I may be wrong, but I believe that anyone who runs for high office must have a moment when they hesitate, when they’re not sure that they should do it or if they can do it—moments when they feel unworthy and unfit. And yet, if the candidates feel this way, they never show it. They may express their uneasiness and their sense of unworthiness in private to their spouses or trusted advisors—but only when the curtain is closed because if we saw them afraid, we probably wouldn’t vote for them. And when Moses comes out, he’s a changed person. All his doubts and fears have been expressed and Gd has answered every one. And so he comes out confident, reassured that Gd will be with him.
Rabbi Michael Gold points out one more detail of the story that I’d like to share with you. When Moses succeeds in taking the Israelites out of Egypt, he begins the 2nd great task of his life—taking Egypt out of the hearts of the Israelites. Gd tells him to build a Mishkan, a central place of worship, where the Israelites can come to worship and experience the Presence of Gd. In the details of the construction Gd tells Moses about curtains. There was to be a curtain which separated the outer courtyard from the holy inner area. And there was another curtain which separated the holy inner area from the Holy of Holies—which was only entered by the Kohen Gadol—the High Priest.
Why? Because curtains create a space of privacy and separation. The Torah (Lev. 16:17) says that when the Kohen Gadol entered the Holy of Holies, v’chol adam lo yih’yeh b’Ohel Mo-eyd, “no one else was permitted to be in the Ohel Mo-eyd from the time he enters until the time he leaves.” The Jerusalem Talmud (Yoma 1:5) adds that not even angels were permitted to enter. Rabeynu Bachya explains that it was necessary to approach Gd in utter and complete privacy—without any intermediary between them. It is in that private moment of holy intimacy that Gd’s blessings can be fully received.
Rabbi Gold points out that today that kind of privacy— even in intimate moments— hardly exists anymore in our society. We live in a world in which there are no curtains. People vie for the chance to appear on reality television, revealing everything to the entire world. The reality show “The Bachelor” will soon complete its new season—I know because there are members of my family who watch it. For the life of me, I don’t understand how anyone would search for the love of their life on a television show competing with 20 others—with the cameras covering almost every intimate moment. I also can’t understand on another show a group of total strangers would agree to live together in a house with cameras watching everything they do 24/7. Some things require privacy and discretion, virtues we have lost in our modern culture.
Have you ever watched programs like “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” or “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” with people sitting around telling their innermost secrets to each other and to the camera? These are people who live without curtains.
I was listening to the Dennis Prager radio show this week and someone was asked why he didn’t do something that he might have done and then he answered, “It would be in poor taste.” And I thought, when was the last time I heard anyone say that they didn’t do something because it was in “poor taste?”
If Moses our Teacher and King George the 6th could speak to us today, they would tell us that if we want to live human lives, we need to live in good taste and to cultivate moments of privacy and places of intimacy. Animals have no curtains. They do what they want, wherever and whenever they want to. But human beings are not animals. We draw the curtain when we want to be alone with our mates, or when we want to be alone with ourselves.
Moses and King George never met. One spoke Egyptian, the other spoke English. One was raised in a palace and then left; the other was raised in a palace and stayed. One became a shepherd for a while; the other never left the royal house. But 2 things they had in common that we can learn from: One was that they had a handicap. Who doesn’t? But they were so caught up in the importance of their task that they forgot about their handicaps. And the other was that they both knew when and how to draw curtains around themselves so they could confront their fears, wrestle with their sense of inadequacy and find the courage to do what Gd expected of them.
Let all of us who live with handicaps—and that is all of us—learn from their example to live in good taste and to draw curtains around our lives and rediscover places and times of intimacy and privacy—just as curtains were drawn in the Mishkan. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis