Many of us tuned into last week's presidential address. Whether it will tip the scales and prove to be efficacious, only time will tell. But I was reminded of a fascinating anecdote that I read in a book written by Richard Nixon, titled In the Arena.
Unlike the practice of today, where handlers and spin doctors essentially write presidential addresses, Woodrow Wilson had a reputation for writing his own speeches. Once, when asked how long it would take him to write a five-minute speech, he replied that it would take about a week. Then he was asked how long it would take to write a half-hour speech. He said, about two days. The questioner further pressed: How about an hour speech? "I can deliver that one right now," answered the 28th president.
Some of the most memorable speeches have been short and succinct. Abraham Lincoln's 271-word Gettysburg address powerfully demonstrates that; speeches can be measured not by their length, but by their depth. Short in extent does not mean short on content. Indeed, sometimes brevity is the soul of wit.
This week, we encounter a major speech delivered by Moses to Pharaoh; the speech is essentially delivered seven times in the course of their interaction. God instructs Moses to enter the citadel of political power that is Pharaoh's palace, and utter these words — words that have been ubiquitously quoted. But Moses, responds: "How will Pharaoh listen to me, I am heavy of speech." (Translation: I am not a good speaker.)
But God insists. (Translation: Don't worry Moses, I wrote you a good speech.)
And so, Moses demonstrates that it's not always about being a great communicator that's important, it's about communicating great things. Moses was going to deliver a resonating and transcendental message — a message that would echo throughout the history of humankind.
What was this speech?
You know it as: "Let My People Go."
Scholars of the U.S. Constitution have written that the three most powerful words of that august document are, "We, the People." Interestingly enough, there were three crucial and non-negotiable words that were uttered by Moses in his oration, and they deserve to be fully quoted and fully incorporated in our psyches. Speaking truth to power, as it were, Moses proclaims: Sh'lach Ami V'y'avduni.
Shlach Ami — "Let my people go." V'ya'avduni — "That they may serve me." Though admittedly after 210 years of slavery, freedom from subjugation was essential. But it was merely a first step. The Jewish project was never about unfettered and unbridled freedom alone, it was and is more about directed freedom. Sir Isaiah Berlin calls this latter category positive freedom. Indeed, we're not meant to be merely a people of Jews. We are mandated to be a Jewish people; that is, a people with a purpose.
In his book, The Making of a Jew, Edgar Bronfman shares a personal reminiscence after becoming president of the World Jewish Congress in 1981. He traveled to visit with Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik to take counsel. When he asked the rabbi for advice, listen to these remarkable words that were offered.
Remember, Mr. Bronfman, "Jews were not put here just to fight anti-Semitism." Indeed, freedom from must ineluctably lead to freedom to — the freedom to live a life of high ethical standards, to continue to challenge the status quo and be the world's conscience.
But let us also acquire the wisdom to know that in this country which affords us the greatest of freedoms, we must re-engage and reconnect anew with the sources, the values and the texts that have been our historic heritage and our people's genius. For only in so doing will "we, the Jewish people" survive and thrive.
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.