Va’era 5782 – Moses’ Self-Doubt

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

In this week’s parshah, God tells Moses that he wants him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom. Moses answered God’s call.  But whether out of apprehension or humility, he quickly added several excuses for not immediately doing what God asked. First, he says: “I am not good enough.”  He points out that a slave people aren’t likely to believe the reports of a wandering shepherd regarding their redemption, and Pharaoh is even less likely to listen to radical suggestions made in the name of an unknown God. Moses also protests that he is not a fluid speaker. It is not clear whether this means that he had a physical speech defect or was self-conscious and inarticulate.  It is unclear as to whether the impediment is a physiological or emotional problem. The literal translation of Moses’ complaint is that he has” uncircumcised lips,” which doesn’t help us at all. The Torah does not identify the nature or origins of Moses’ difficulty. Rashi postulates that Moses had an actual speech impediment – perhaps a stutter or a severe lisp. However, Moses’ impediment is wholly self-described. We learn of it is from his own protests at having been chosen as Israel’s liberator. The absence of corroboration of this narrative implies that Moses’ impediment loomed larger in his own mind than as a handicap perceptible to others.  God did not accept this excuse. Moses’ next excuse is: “I don’t have all the answers.”   But God’s directive wasn’t about Moses-it was about God.  God was asking him to be His voice. Another excuse was: “I am not qualified.”  Moses’ final statement is more desperate.” Please, anyone but me!”  God responds to this with righteous anger. The excuses stop and God calls upon Aaron to serve alongside his brother. Aaron was a man with the abilities Moses felt he lacked.  Aaron’s role as mediator was critical to the success of Moses’ leadership. Moses needed to reach beyond his own personal experience.  As we can see, Moses was full of self-doubt, but God trusted him anyway.

We have all been there. At some points in our lives, we question whether we are doing well enough or are capable of facing all the uncertainties that might come up as we grow older. We experience feelings of self-doubt around decisions and choices we made or simply feel that we’re not good enough. Did I study enough?  Will I get into medical school?  Will this D’var be good enough?  Self-doubt occurs when we lack confidence or feel incapable of doing things we need to do. A certain level of self-doubt is good because it indicates that you understand what you need to improve in order to do a better job. However, persistent fear and self-doubt can affect your life in a bad way.

Five common causes of self-doubt include:

  1. Past experience and mistakes. Past experience can make us question our beliefs. However, continuing to reference past experiences without learning from them is just a waste of time.
  2. Childhood upbringing. If you were raised by parents or teachers who constantly told that you were not good enough, you might have already internalized the habit of questioning yourself.
  3. Comparisons with others. When you’re comparing too much with others about what they have or what you lack, you’ll start to lose yourself.
  4. New challenges. This is a pretty normal case because we have no experience on how to react or what things we need to do. The feeling of uncertainty and insecurity will make you feel uncomfortable.
  5. Fear of failure/fear success.

There are three clues that self-doubt and the fear of getting things wrong could be undermining your ability to turn thoughts into action: You’re constantly apologizing, you second guess yourself, and you would rather be in the background.

Self-doubt can leave you with anxiety, depression, procrastination or lack of motivation, emotional instability, low self-esteem, or difficulty making decisions.

Theodora Goss, in an article about self-doubt, wrote the following:  We usually think of self-doubt as a problem, almost as a disease. Despite previous successes we still have self-doubt. Self-doubt is not something anyone else can fight. It is your own personal monster. You have to fight it yourself. But there are also some good things about self-doubt. It sounds counter-intuitive, but it can be argued that self-doubt can be a source of strength. It can be what makes you stronger and better.  Here’s how:

  1. Self-doubt can make you work harder. I know, this is not always true: self-doubt can lead to giving up. But doubting our own talents and abilities can drive us to work harder to get what we want. Study harder for the exam. Prepare harder for the class. Practice more.
  2. Self-doubt means you judge yourself more harshly, which can be a bad thing. As mentioned, it can lead to despair and depression. But it can also make you hold yourself to a high standard.
  3. Self-doubt gives you a sense of humility. A student who doubts his or her own abilities will listen to you, will learn what you have to teach. So, if you have self-doubt, you tend to be a good student.

What can we do to overcome self-doubt?

  1. Practice self-compassion
  2. Remember your past achievements
  3. Try not to compare yourself to others
  4. Be mindful of your thinking.

If negative thoughts persist, take a moment and ask yourself if you really believe that they are true. Consider how positive thinking may shift your mindset and allow you to be more confidence in your abilities.

  1. Spend time with supportive people. They can remind you how talented and resilient you are during times when you’re not feeling that way about yourself
  2. Find validation from within
  3. Identify your values
  4. Remember you are your harshest critic
  5. Seek professional help, if necessary

To summarize, everyone has self-doubt. It is what we do with it that is important.  Self-doubt is easily one of the quickest things we allow to steal our joy. We all carry around this voice of self-doubt. Self-doubt goes away the more we trust ourselves. At the end of the day, self-doubt was here to teach us something, to learn and grow, and to get better.

It is reassuring to think that God chose not the strongest or the fastest or the smartest or the most beautiful but called upon a person who was ” slow of mouth and slow of tongue.” Yet, this is exactly what is discomforting about these verses: they stripped from us all our excuses, all our rationales for procrastination, all our lack of self-confidence masquerading as humility. By appointing Moses, the man of” uncircumcised lips,” as a prophet, a man completely dependent on words, God is telling the rest of us:  you must get on with your mission in life, despite your limitations, despite your self-doubts, despite all the problems that seem to be in the way. It is much easier to shrug off the task as beyond our capacities or to wish fervently, as Moses did, that God would appoint someone else in our place. Each of us must consider seriously and apply to ourselves Rabbi Tarfon’s famous challenge:  “You are not obliged to finish the task, but neither are you free to neglect it.”