“Say your piece!”
“Speak your mind!”
“Stand up for yourself.”
These are all lessons that we are taught regarding self-advocacy and advocacy for other people or causes. I sign petitions and deliver sermons and create educational curricula based on doing what I think is right and how I can help give voice to marginalized people in our communities. When we believe in something so much, when we value something so special (especially our loved ones), it’s in our nature to never give up. To keep trying. To fight for justice. And for most of my life, that’s what I’ve done. Maybe some of you fall in my camp.
And then I look at Moshe.
As we gear up in Parashat Bo for the eighth plague, locusts, we see how Moshe functions as the middle man. God tells Moshe to tell Pharaoh, “Let My people go.” And if not, says Moshe, there will be locusts that will destroy your land and fill all your palaces and Egyptian homes.
And then… Moshe stops.
The Torah says: “With that, he turned and left Pharaoh’s presence” (Exodus 10:6). According to Abarbanel (15th century, Portugal), this is a detail that occurs with no other plague.
With that, he turned and left Pharaoh’s presence. Wow.
We could look at Moshe and say: “How could he do that?” “How could he just say a few words and then just leave?” Did he really put his all into rescuing the Israelites from slavery? Isn’t the future of his people resting on his convincing Pharaoh to do the right thing? How could Moshe just leave?
According to the Ramban (12th century, present-day Spain), Moshe purposefully left without Pharaoh’s permission and without waiting for an answer from him. Moshe, remembering how fearful the Egyptians were from the last plague, wanted to give Pharaoh’s courtiers a chance to convince Pharaoh that Moshe (and God) meant serious business. Moshe used his power.
Society often teaches us that power is about finding ways of getting our way, of convincing (or coercing) others of a particular outcome, of using our power or authority to “get something done.”
But in this case, power was in Moshe’s strategy and that strategy involved letting go.
I once saw two young children, a boy and a girl, playing together. They had a hard time sharing a toy. The boy took it from the girl and, upset, the girl hit him. Naturally, the boy hit her back, and eventually both started to cry.
Our instincts, even as a child, teach us to defend ourselves. To stand up for ourselves.
So I approached the little girl and I said to her, “What do you think would happen if you just didn’t hit him? What would happen if you ignored him?” With tears in her eyes, it was difficult for her to hear me, but I think she did.
And then it happened again; this time, with a book. The girl, trying to ignore the other child, grabbed a book from the shelf. Of course, that’s the only book the boy wanted from the hundreds of others on the shelf, so, he grabbed it from her. This time, the girl, “using her words” said “that’s not nice” — and turned the other way.
She turned away and left the boy’s presence.
Moshe turned and left Pharaoh’s presence, too.
My life has not been short on moments of trying to influence others. It’s at the core of what I do as a rabbi. As parents, or professionals, or friends, we feel passionate about something and want others to feel or act in similar ways, to believe in our cause. But the moment that I find myself trying to convince someone else of what’s good for them is the moment I lose my power.
The little boy, who just took the book right out of the girl’s hands, looked at the little girl, who just turned away. He was dumbfounded. He had a look of disappointment on his face, as if to say, “I just made you mad! Aren’t you going to do something about it? Why aren’t you giving me any attention?”
The little girl just smiled.
There is power in her silence.
There is power when we turn and leave.
There is power in just letting go.