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Soap operas have drawn hundreds of thousands of viewers since their inception in the early 1950s. Now, we all know the truth about soap operas. They’re not exactly the apex of film-making. To put it plainly, the plotlines are predictable, the characters are vapid, and the picture-perfect casting and settings make the story superficial to the point of senselessness.
Why are soap operas so popular? Fans crave the drama. They’re addicted to the thrill of vicarious emotions. It’s fast food for the heart. Bold and beautiful sells.
Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses Our Teacher) knew this a long, long time ago. About two thousand years ago, to be exact. When the Almighty appeared to Moshe at the burning bush to ask him to lead the Jewish People out of Egypt, Moshe famously replied:
“Please, my Lord, I am not a man of words, not since yesterday, nor since the day before yesterday, nor since You first spoke to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech.” (Shemos-Exodus 4:10)
Moshe’s argument was simple. “G-d, You know me very well, and You know I can’t do this! I have a speech impediment. I’m not smooth talking or charismatic or any of those things!”
But the Almighty insists that Moshe take on the yoke of leadership nonetheless. Because real life is not a soap opera and the bold and the beautiful are not what really matters.
What Really Happened at the Burning Bush
Rabbi Leib Kelemen refers to Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, ztz”l, as R1. Rav Wolbe’s rabbi, Rav Yerucham Levovitz, is R2. R3 is Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, and so on and so forth all the way back to Moshe himself. His personal experience of the mesora gives away a big secret about what really happened at the burning bush.
Rabbi Kelemen admits that, as dramatic as he is in his own Torah classes – jumping up on chairs, voice rising and falling in time with all the varied characters in his stories, dancing from one end of the room to the next – his own rebbe spoke very quietly. In fact, says Rabbi Kelemen, Rav Wolbe taught Torah in a near-monotone. Rav Wolbe’s rebbe, Rav Yerucham, was calmer still.
Why didn’t Rav Wolbe spice it up with some loud voices, some funny characterizations? Rabbi Kelemen explained that Rav Wolbe didn’t need drama because he had content. When you have something of real substance to say, something truly fascinating and relevant, you don’t need to make it into a soap opera. Rav Yerucham had even purer and more powerful Torah content than Rav Wolbe. And so on all the way back to Sinai.
That, essentially, was Hashem’s reply to Moshe at the burning bush:
“Who makes a mouth for a man, or who makes one dumb or deaf, or sighted or blind? Is it not I, Hashem? So now, go! I shall be with your mouth and teach you what you should say.” (ibid 11)
When your content comes from the Source of all wisdom and beauty and wonder, you don’t need smooth talking. In fact, the more truthful, accurate, and on-target your Torah is, the less drama you need. No matter how plainly you speak, the truth speaks for itself.
Something to Say
So why does Rabbi Kelemen ham it up? Why did Moshe persist in asking for a spokesperson in his more eloquent brother Aharon (Aaron)? The Almighty condoned Moshe’s request and certainly condones all the creative, dramatic, entertaining Torah teachers of our day. Why not continue to simply say it like it is without all the bells and whistles?
Because we are obligated to be sensitive to the tastes of our audience. Presentation is not what matters most, but it does matter. It is a kindness to do our best to communicate in the way that will be most easily understood by our listeners. Torah study is intended to be enjoyable and today’s enjoyable is not yesteryear’s enjoyable.
What is less self-evident is that if there is nothing inside the fancy packaging than all the charisma is worth nothing. Moshe was the greatest leader the Jewish People have ever known not because he was so witty, charming, or media-savvy, but because the man actually had something to say.
Junk food and soap operas don’t satisfy. Flavor and drama for their own sake do not transport us anywhere. Leaders as well-spoken and vapid as soap opera stars are worthless (not to mention dangerous).
Let’s take the cue from the Almighty on this one and start to focus less on charisma and more on what is actually being said. When we notice ourselves paying more attention to external presentation than to authentic content, superficial appearances rather than true identity, it’s time to get back to the burning bush mentality.
Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender