Blessed are the Introverts

January 05, 2013
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove

Parashat Sh'mot

In this season of college admissions, I found myself speaking the other day with a congregational parent about the two very different worlds of campus life that I have experienced. I did my undergraduate work at the University of Michigan, a classic college town if there ever was one. Big Ten Football, lecture halls of hundreds and everything that goes along with it. I loved it all, but when people ask me if I would recommend Michigan to their kid, I answer by asking about the demeanor of the would- be Wolverine. Why? Because Ann Arbor is not a place for the meek. You have to be wired a certain way, capable of being assertive, forcing yourself onto your professor’s radar screen and into her office hours, prepared to argue to get into a closed class, ready to thrust yourself into campus life. To be otherwise would result in a faceless, anonymous and unremarkable four years. So you can imagine the difference I found when I arrived at the University of Chicago for graduate school. U of C was designed for the cerebral and reserved. As the joke goes, “How can you tell the difference between an introvert and extrovert at U of C? Because the extrovert will look at your shoes when he is talking to you.” My classmates at U of C, the undergrads I taught there, the entire social hierarchy in Hyde Park was totally different from that of Ann Arbor. Coolness was measured by thought, not by volume. Sociability happened over hot tea, not tailgates. Late nights were spent in library carrels and at vending machines, not bar hopping to dollar pitcher nights.

As a proud product of both campuses, I suppose I am shaped by both institutions, a little bit Ann Arbor, a little bit Hyde Park. My day job demands that I stand and speak constantly, in staff meetings, community settings, sanctuaries filled with congregants of members and complete strangers. Yet given time off, I love nothing more than a day spent in the library, never opening my mouth, alone in my thoughts, surrounded only by bookshelves. Susan Cain, in her book on the subject, cautions us against self-stereotyping, against thinking that any one of us fits neatly into one category of either introvert or extrovert. (Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking) Our world, and for that matter, each one of us, most likely possesses elements of both introversion and extroversion. There is a place for Ann Arbor and a place for Hyde Park, and in all likelihood, a bit of both in each of us depending on the time and place.

When you open up our own texts and tradition, there is no question to which side the scale tilts. Martin Buber, in his essay on biblical leadership, pointed out the biblical partiality to the introvert. Think about every biblical hero we have encountered thus far. Jacob – a dweller in tents; Isaac – not exactly the back-slapping type. Noah – saves the whole world – why? Because he was tamim, simple in his righteousness. Of course Abraham does give an impassioned speech at Sodom and Gomorrah, but that is actually the exception that proves the rule. It was the very fact that our taciturn patriarch chose this spot to take a stand and speak out against God that made his conduct heroic. And the converse holds true as well, the low points of the narrative – Adam blaming Eve, Joseph’s careless words before his brothers – these were moments where a bit of verbal restraint would have been well placed and saved us from heartache.

Probably the most noteworthy example, the leadership model by which all future Jewish leaders are measured, occurs with the introduction of the hero of this week’s parashah and the rest of the Torah – Moses. Moses is the classic introvert. Best as I can tell, prior to the Burning Bush, there is only one line of dialogue attributed to him, significantly, when he witnesses two Israelites quarreling and he asks “Why do you strike your brother?” (Exodus 2:13) At the Burning Bush itself, time after time, God calls Moses to leadership, and each and every time Moses balks and demurs. Despite every divine assurance, Moses claims Lo ish d’varim anokhi, “I am not a man of words, I am heavy of speech and heavy of tongue.” (Ex. 4:10) From this verse the rabbis famously assign Moses a speech impediment, with years of afterschool speech therapy not covered by the Egyptian insurance system. But more simply, I think Moses was simply telling God, “I don’t have the gift of gab, I don’t schmooze, I am better one-on-one … in other words – I am an introvert!” And, in what I think is one of the most thunderous divine responses of all, God booms: “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes one deaf or mute or seeing or blind? Is it not I the Lord?” (Ex. 4:11) As with all of God’s rhetorical questions, the point is rather clear. God is telling Moses, “I know exactly what your strengths and weaknesses are, I know exactly what you and every member of humanity are capable of – the choice of you as leader isn’t an accident or a mix-up. Rather it is just the opposite, it is your very introverted nature that makes you my choice for the task at hand!”

It is here that we get to the nub of the matter, namely, why? Why would God – why would anyone for that matter – choose an introvert for the single most important mission of our people’s history? Sure, Moses came from good stock, he was handy with a staff and being a Hebrew raised in an Egyptian household, he had a useful bi-cultural status. But why in the world would God choose someone with Moses’ verbal and emotional austerity to lead the people at this critical juncture?

I think the answer, or at least part of the answer, goes to the heart not only of Moses and the Exodus narrative, but of a Jewish notion of character formation. As will be made explicit in the book of Numbers, Moses was blessed with an abiding and singular humility. That our greatest leader was also our most humble ensured that in the role thrust upon him he would never be driven by ego, but rather by what was best for the people. In choosing Moses, God identified the one person who would always ask the big picture questions; a quality, significantly, that would even serve to check God’s own wrath when the children of Israel would sin time and again in the desert. Neither the whims of the Israelites, nor the frustrations of God would determine the course, but Moses, entrusted to lead our people, would bring Israel to the border of the Promised Land.

Moses was not only humble, he was quiet. There is, according to our tradition, a direct connection between wisdom and silence, as Ecclesiastes teaches, “The words of the wise are spoken in quiet.” (Ecc. 9:17) As Susan Cain and others have pointed out, there is absolutely no correlation between the quality of an idea and the number of words it takes to explain it. Verbosity, we all know, often serves to mask insecurity and incompetence. As the Talmudic aphorism goes, “When there is only one penny in the pitcher it makes most noise.” (Bava Metzia 85b) Or as my father would say to me and my brothers, and I now say to my own children, “Raising your voice does not make your argument any more compelling.”

It goes even deeper than wisdom. By choosing someone who was naturally introverted, God chose someone who would not be swayed by unfounded adulation or undue criticism, whose ethic would be shaped not by external pressure or perception but by an inner moral compass. It was for this very reason that Maimonides, when identifying the moral prerequisites of a king, points to Moses as the archetype. After all, the litmus test for anyone serving in a political office – in the Bible, in medieval times or this past week – should be the avoidance of excesses of pride, pettiness, the need for self preservation and unhealthy group think that far too often characterize public officials. Don’t get me wrong, extroverts are perfectly capable of moral behavior, but it is the one who stands humbly before God, loyal to the integrity of his or her own convictions that exhibits the root of ethical behavior. As Emerson famously wrote, “It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinions; it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” (Self Reliance)

What we all know, leadership and personal ethics aside, is that emotional maturity stems from an individual’s ability to make decisions for him- or herself and live with the consequences of those choices. When it comes to character formation, I think the most important muscle group – in matters of love, finance, professional choices or otherwise – is the ability to decide whose advice to take and whose advice to ignore. Blessed as I am to have had and to continue to have many mentors, teachers and family members, I know that the most important, most difficult, and thankfully best decisions of my life came by way of listening to some people and ignoring others, ignoring even those people who to this day I believe had my best interests in mind. We spend much of our lives looking at the world through other people’s eyes, but at the end of the day, only we ourselves can measure our authenticity, integrity and personal self-worth. Some of us are naturally inward-looking, others need to create space to get our bearings, but all of us need to establish Moses-like pockets of introspection and reflection in order to find our truest selves.

In hindsight, the wisdom of God’s choosing an introvert to lead our people through the wilderness seems obvious. Time and again – against Pharaoh, at the sea, receiving the law, bearing witness to the Golden Calf and beyond – Moses proves to be uniquely positioned for the task at hand. Whatever his weaknesses, and there were many, he was able to surmount them with God’s trust and the people’s trust intact because of this core quality. Ultimately, we know, it will be Joshua not Moses who will bring Israel to the land, and let’s not forget that for Moses to be successful he needed his brother and mouthpiece Aaron. To get from point A to point B it takes, as they say, a village. And whatever we may believe ourselves to be today, each one of us is capable of growth. Moses, although initially self-identified as not a man of words, de'arim, would go on to have his words fill the final book of the bible, D'varim. The options are not either/or, neither within Moses’ life, nor for all us today. But the lesson is clear. It is that still small voice, in the classroom, the board room, the staff meeting, the political arena and most of all, within each of us, that is so easy to overlook, that is often the bearer of the greatest wisdom and insight. May each of us take care to listen carefully, to hear that voice, and most importantly, to respond to its call.