I recently saw what I thought to be the most brilliant advertisement. It was a large truck and on the side of the truck it had the words: “It’s what’s inside that counts.” Here’s where it gets good. When you think of those words, you think of not judging a person by their cover, and how our middos, our moral character is so much more important than how we look. Right?
But this ad was an ad for Life Fitness, a company that sells exercise equipment.
And so under the words, it’s what’s inside that counts, there was an image of the inside of the truck. And what’s inside the truck? Exercise machines. “It’s what’s inside that counts.”
This ad caused quite a controversy with many people feeling like they were being disingenuous, that this ad was completely out of line with the products and the lifestyle they promote. How can a fitness company that normally highlights perfectly toned bodies tell you that what really matters is what’s on the inside?! What I think many people missed is that this ad was a perfect example of Knowing Thyself and having a deep and honest self-awareness. Let me explain:
Who was the most successful leader of the Jewish People?
Undoubtedly that award goes to Moshe. Leads the Jewish People out of Egypt, performs the most memorable miracles known to mankind, facilitates the receiving of the Torah, and leads the Jewish people to the doorstep of the Land of Israel. Moshe is the GOAT, there is no competition.
But Moshe has flaws. Part of his greatness is that he is cognizant of his flaws. The first flaw we learn about almost causes him to not take the job, and the final flaw we learn about causes him to lose his job.
What’s the first flaw, or more accurately, the first disability? Moshe’s speech impediment. When Hashem initially asks Moshe to lead the Jewish People, Moshe says he can’t because – k’vad peh anochi, I am a man with a ‘heavy mouth.’ Moshe, as we know, had some form of a stutter. His first role was that of a spokesperson. Standing before Pharaoh and stuttering is not intimidating, and standing before the Jewish People and stuttering is not inspiring.
How did Hashem respond? Mi sam peh l’adam? Who gives man a mouth?
?! What does this mean?! What kind of answer is that?
Rabbeinu Nissim of Gerona, a 14th-century Spanish philosopher, shares a most beautiful idea: G-d was telling Moshe, “You think your speech impediment is a problem, an issue, something that will get in the way of your success as a leader of the Jewish People? It’s not a bug, it’s a feature! In order for you to be successful, you need to have that speech impediment!”
Rabbeinu Nissim explains: The most important part of Moshe’s job was not to take the Jews out of Egypt, it was to help them receive the Torah. Moshe would be the one who would present G-d’s offer to the Jewish People: Do you want to receive the Torah? There are many laws, there are many responsibilities, it’s a big ask.
Now imagine Moshe was not Moshe. Imagine Moshe was Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and when he presented this question to the Jewish People, he did so with an English accent. Not only an English accent, but he first delivered the lecture of a lifetime; he wove together philosophy, stories, insights into the psyche of man, and all of this in his impeccable English, perfectly timed pauses, and brilliant prose. Frankly, by the time Rabbi Sacks would be done speaking he could sell me the Brooklyn Bridge. His eloquence translated into a magnetic charisma and he could talk you into just about anything.
Now imagine Rabbi Sacks gave this delivery and the Jewish People answered their famous answer, “Na’aseh v’nishma!” We will do and we will learn!” and they accept the Torah. A few weeks later, or maybe a few years later, when the magic dissipates, don’t you think the Jewish People might make an argument that they never really willfully accepted the Torah? That they were inspired, enamored, swept up by Rabbi Sacks and his charismatic speeches that they said yes but they didn’t really mean it? It would be a pretty compelling argument, no?
Says G-d to Moshe: “You think your ‘deficit’ your speech impediment is a ‘problem’? Who do you think gave you that speech impediment? I DID! And I did so for a reason! I did so because it was critical to your life mission!” It was critical for Moshe to not speak perfectly so that no one would ever say that they were duped, that Moshe, the used car salesman talked them into it. No! If you said yes, it was because you meant it.
But G-d’s response is not just to Moshe; it’s to all of us. We all have our own ‘kvad peh’ our own impediments, be they physical, material, emotional. And what G-d is asking us to do is to stop seeing them as something that gets in the way and instead recognize that those ‘hindrances’ are a critical key to our life mission. That G-d gave us those handicaps, but not as a handicap, as a gift. For some, it’s figuring out how I can use that impediment to my advantage, like Moshe. And for others, it’s how I can overcome that impediment – that too is a life mission. To be born with something that can hold me back and to learn how to overcome.
G-d is telling each and every one of us, “That feature that you’re so embarrassed of? That life circumstance that you can’t stand? I gave it to you. I gave it to you because I believe in you. Because I believe that you can transform that impediment into something beautiful.
Sometimes though the goal is not to transform, sometimes we cannot even overcome, sometimes the goal is simply to be cognizant of our weaknesses, to learn how to see what’s in our blindspot. That too is an accomplishment and not a small order. And this brings us to the end of Moshe’s life.
There is one consistent character flaw throughout Moshe’s life:
The Jewish People are told not to collect man on Shabbos, some people do. What does Moshe do? He yells at them.
After the death of Nadav and Avihu die, the Kohanim leave an offering on the altar for too long and it gets burned. What does Moshe do? He angrily reprimands the remaining sons of Aharon.
And of course, most famously, when the Jewish People complain about a lack of water, Moshe takes his staff and hits the rock.
Moshe, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz points out, struggled with anger. Over and over his anger appears. It causes him to forget laws that he had learned, as our Sages teach us, anger causes forgetfulness, and it causes him to lose his leadership through the infamous hitting of the rock.
Despite the mishap at the rock, Moshe’s anger is still there. Once again, in this week’s Torah portion, we find him angrily reprimanding the Jewish soldiers as they come back from war. It never goes away. It never gets transformed into something beautiful. But Moshe’s greatness, in this instance, is his self-awareness.
How do we know that? When Moshe asks G-d for a successor, he has very specific criteria: “She’yehi sovel kol echad v’echad l’fi da’ato, that he will tolerate and will have patience for each and every person.”
Moshe recognized his limitation. Moshe, despite being the greatest man to live, never fully transcended that character flaw but what he did do was acknowledge it. “I don’t have the requisite patience, please G-d, find a successor who does.”
And that’s why I love that ad for Life Fitness. What is the biggest critique against a company that sells products that build your body and your body alone? The critique, the weakness, the deficit, is that by focusing on the externals, it ignores what really matters, what’s on the inside. Life Fitness leaned in, tongue-in-cheek, but they leaned in and acknowledged where they fall short.
This is something every company and every organization needs to do. Acknowledge your deficit. And then you have to figure out, is this a deficit that can be made into a benefit? Is my speech impediment really a gift? Or maybe it’s something that really is a problem? In which case, at the very least, I’ll acknowledge it.
I remember when I first became the rabbi of Ner Tamid and people asked me, who goes to the shul? Is it Modern Orthodox? Sort of. Is it traditional? Sort of. Is it for people who are newly observant? Sort of. Truth be told, it was awkward at first. But then I realized that’s not a weakness, it’s our superpower. There’s a word for that – we are the most diverse shul I am aware of! But there are other deficits that we have as an institution that we may not be able to reframe. And that’s okay. As long as we are aware of their existence they won’t hold us back.
We just started the Nine Days of Mourning. In a week we’ll be sitting on the floor reminding ourselves of the destroyed Bais Hamikdash. Our Sages teach us that any generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt, it is as if during that generation, the Temple is destroyed. So instead of spending these days just thinking about what they did wrong, we need to ask ourselves, what are we doing wrong? What are our flaws? This is a question that needs to be asked as a community, but also for every thinking individual; do I know myself? Am I aware of my flaws? Because let me tell you, if you are not aware of any glaring flaws, then I could tell you what your flaw is, it’s a lack of self-awareness. Ein tzadik ba’aretz asher lo yecheta, there are no perfectly righteous people, only people who think they are.
There is an apocryphal story told of Abraham Lincoln. Before he was president, he was a prominent lawyer in Illinois. One day, an inidvidual showed up in his office and asked him to help with some legal problems, but it would involve some shady business. Honest Abe said no, I can’t help you.
The individual pulled out 50 dollars, a nice sum of money in the mid-19th century. Again, Lincoln said no. The man pulled out 100 dollars and put it on the table. Lincoln shook his head and said, no. Until the man pulled $500, equivalent to around $10,000, and at this point Abraham Lincoln said: “Sir, everyone has a price and you’re getting awfully close to mine.” He picked the man up and threw him out the door. Know thyself; know your flaws and know your limitations.
Life Fitness is right. “It’s what’s on the inside that really matters.”
They may not live up to that standard but at least, they know themselves. When we’re awake to our deficits and deficiencies, sometimes, we can transform that embarrassing flaw into a beautiful feature. But at the very least, the knowledge of our weakness is in and of itself the most incredible strength.