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Moses, God, and the Power of Expectations

Moses, God, and the Power of Expectations

As a child, I always loved hearing the Exodus story on Passover: how Moses bravely went to Pharaoh and demanded the Israelites be freed from bondage, setting off a catalytic chain of events that led to their departure from Egypt. But in adulthood upon learning that Moses had a speech impairment, the drama took on new significance for me, because I, too, have a speech impairment due to having cerebral palsy.

Of course, according to several midrashes, the source of Moses' speech disability is open to interpretation, as well as the nature of the impediment itself (a stutter, a lisp, a damaged tongue?) Whatever its origin, Moses – our greatest leader, the one who delivered us from slavery – obsessed that he lacked appropriate skills in the oratory department. You'd think God would have given more thought in choosing someone to head up this significant expedition.

Even Moses did his best to reason with God, trying to point out his own inadequacies for not readily taking on the task of confronting Pharaoh. But God wasn't about to let Moses off the hook, or, for that matter, spend the time drawing up an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) for him. Displaying no qualms with God’s decision, God simply instructed Moses to take his brother Aaron with him to convey the message to “Let My people go.” God had the expectation that Moses was the right person for the job.

As a person with cerebral palsy, speech is one of the biggest issues I face. Although I've successfully given presentations in classrooms and conferences, I have difficulty getting into casual conversation at social gatherings, even when there's not much background noise. Most of the time, I speak with slow clarity; I choose words that I can easily pronounce and express them with deliberate enunciation, exercising control of my breath. I use facial expressions and body language to assist in getting across what I want to say.

Yes, it takes effort, because I'm nervous. It also takes partnership with the person I'm talking with, who has to be willing to employ patience, to suspend his or her anxiety (just as I have to suspend mine), and to be ready to listen instead of constructing responses while I'm still speaking. Some people enter the partnership willingly and find our communication flows more easily over time, as we get on the same wavelength. Still, most people who don't know me remain reluctant to initiate even a casual conversation with me, and I'm reluctant to put them on the spot.

I suspect Moses had a similar mindset when he tried to worm his way out of God's directive.

Interestingly, as the saga of the Israelites progresses, Moses' speech impairment is never again mentioned, even as he presents the Ten Commandments, renders counsel to the 12 tribes, and gathers the whole congregation to instruct them in Jewish law before entering the Promised Land. In all likelihood, Moses still retained his disability, but God's show of faith bolstered Moses' confidence in his own ability to speak. And perhaps God's expectation of the Israelites to follow their leader had created in them the innate capacity to listen.

In my own interactions with people, I'm often surprised by their initial reactions to my speech, especially when they're positive. I can trace my skepticism about how people will respond back to a fateful meeting I had with a rehabilitation counselor I was 16. Facing a rather imposing-looking man about three times my age and size, I had to respond to his question of what career I'd like to pursue for my future. Of course, I had no clue, but figured I should say something. Because I liked helping people and got along well with my classmates, I timidly mentioned I might like to go into teaching or psychology. He furrowed his brow and shot down my hopes in one fell swoop, admonishing me for being unrealistic because, he told me, people would never listen to me. After all, I had a speech impairment!

At the time, I had no arsenal of reason to dispute his rationale, and he had years of experience on his side. I left in tears. The saddest truth of it was that it caused my already-fermenting self-doubt to nibble away at my fragile adolescent self-esteem, creating a mitzrayim (narrowing) of my own potential. His words plagued me for years.

If I had only known about Moses that day, maybe I would have just grinned like the Cheshire Cat, knowing I would have somehow figured out how to achieve whatever I eventually determined my goals to be. I can’t go back in time and change things for my younger self, but today, when I remember Moses’ disability, his potential, and his success, I'm reminded of God's demand that Moses lead the Jewish people, speech impairment and all. It seems we're often too ready to render judgments and imposed limits because of self-doubts, fears, and preconceptions. God's insistence serves as a lesson in the power of expectations – not only for ourselves, but for others!

Denise Sherer Jacobson is volunteer coordinator of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month events at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA. She's the author of The Question of David: A Disabled Mother's Journey Through Adoption, Family, and Life.

Denise Sherer Jacobson
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