How scared are you to make a phone call?
God walks Moses through his fear of communicating
The phone rang, and even before I could see the name on the screen, a wave of fear swept through my body. As I look over, my fears are realized as the writing across the screen ominously reads, “Don’t Answer!”. The input I placed instead of my commander’s name. It was in humour, but at that moment I couldn’t remember why it was funny. I take a deep breath to calm my nerves. “What is the worst thing it can be?” I rationalize, “That he calls me back to base?” No reason to fret there. I hit the answer call button and lift the phone to my ear — “Hi Daniel, Ma Nishma?” I say, with as much swag as I can muster, hoping the anxiety doesn’t show through my words.
I got my first mobile phone in September 2000. The second Intifada broke out, my unit was sent to the northern front, and the Army needed a way to get in touch with me in a more immediate fashion. One time, there was an attack; we were all called in. The Army called my parents landline, but I was out with friends. Arriving late, I was scolded for not being available. I didn’t want it, nor did I feel I needed it, but my commanding officers insisted that I either get a phone or check in every two hours. The latter sounded terrible — so I bought a cellphone.
I didn’t use it much. Being the lone wolf, I was not big on communication, especially not the kind that took place away from visual social cues. When using landlines, I would keep it short and only call when I felt it was needed. I never understood my sister. Growing up one year behind me, she was more social and seemed to take incredible pleasure from communicating with her friends. She would spend all day with them and then come home only to call them and talk more. This did not change when we went mobile. My sister would always use up her minutes while I would barely scratch the surface of my plan. Once, the phone company charged me for NOT using my phone enough!
As it was rarely used for social communication, I guess it shouldn’t come as such a surprise that I was averse to my phone from the get-go.
After the Army, the relationship with my mobile phone would fluctuate. Often months would go by, and it wouldn’t bother me at all. I could leave the ringer on, answer calls without thinking twice. But at other times, it would create such anxiety, I would feel that even knowing it was ringing would send me down the rabbit hole.
Often I would wonder why I was paying for this increased stress in my life. But people “needed” to reach me, so I conformed. To this day, when my phone rings or, worse — buzzes, I freeze. Sometimes it’s a slight apprehension that I can overcome; other times, it’s a crippling fear. Because it is not constant, it has often had a devastating effect on my relationships. I can be friendly and outgoing one moment, and then suddenly — I drop off the face of the planet. Some friends and family know that I don’t answer my phone and won’t take it personally. But others have been burnt by it and have stopped talking to me altogether because of it.
As you can imagine, this has also been devastating to my working relationships. My field of work requires a lot of communication with others — partners, group leaders, colleagues etc. Working up the courage to share this handicap with them is not always something I can muster. We all want to be competent at our jobs. Finding that you can’t even make a simple call to a client has lasting effects long after the anxiety subsides. Feelings of failure that you are sub-par are augmented with the knowledge of how good you could have done your job if you could only conquer your fear.
Moses, according to many commentators, was no stranger to social anxiety. In our Parsha, Moses mentions twice that he is of “uncircumcised lips”, once in the context of Pharaoh and later when ordered to talk to Israel.
The Rabbis wonder about this use of words, and many concluded that it is in reference to Moses’s fear of communicating. Based on Talmudic sources, Rashi claims that Moses fear came from his stutter.
Rabenu Bechayeh would continue to share how Moses was full of fear — not only about speaking before Pharaoh (an understandable fear) but also when standing before the children of Israel, his followers. Rabenu Bechayeh will continue this theme in the following Parsha, sharing the distinction between positive fear that can help us grow vs negative fears that can harm us if left untreated.
Haran (Rabbi Nissim Geronidi, Spain c1350) — shares that Moses, the Father of all Prophets, had to have the ultimate weakness — a crippling fear of speaking so that we could all relate to him. A prophet who fears speech is like a driver scared of driving. In this story, Moses must overcome his fear to fulfil his mission and, in doing so — teaches us an essential lesson in conquering our own fears and flaws. [Derashot Haran 5:5].
Rather than cure Moses’ speech flaw, or grant him the “spirit of God” that would fill him with courage. God instead answers as a seasoned teacher and father figure — essentially saying, Don’t worry, I am right here! Then, when that is not enough, he sends Aharon — his brother, to physically stand by his side. This, too, is a teachable moment. One that shies away from a simple miracle fix to our challenges and encourages us to face them on our own or fall back on loved ones — when needed.
A few years ago, I asked my friend Eyal how he gets himself up every morning to run. Most people just talk about it, but he actually did it. He shared that instead of seeing running as a vitamin that could help improve his life, he decided to see it as an anti-biotic he couldn’t live without. Many skip their vitamins, but it’s rare for someone to skip out on taking their anti-biotic.
I found this notion inspiring, and it helped me recognize my fears, follow through on treatment and, develop my coping mechanisms. I plan my calls in advance, always look for privacy before making a phone call, screen calls and reply by text when possible, anything to help lower my anxiety. I also go to therapy, run a lot, and generally try to spend as much time outdoors. Unfortunately, it’s not a perfect fix, and I still often find myself falling down into the chasm of anxiety, fear and depression. When I do, I think back to this Parsha to find the inspiration to get up again.
It has taken me a very long time to deal with my military-related trauma and fears. For a very long time, I thought I could ignore it or wish it away. I felt that it was a phase, and every time it would subside, I thought it was for good. Until I internalized the lesson that God was teaching Moses in our Parsha. There is no easy fix. One needs to face their flaws, face their fears — otherwise, they will never be able to overcome them. You can fall back on friends and family; you can find inspiration in faith — but regardless of the source — only you can muster the courage to overcome your fears and flaws.
P.S. If you want to reach out, text me ;)