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Parashat Va’eira 5782

December 31, 2021

Click HERE for an audio recording of this Dvar Torah

A D’var Torah for Parashat Va’eira
By Rabbi Cantor Sam Levine (’19)
(I am indebted to the invaluable resource AlHatorah.org for directing me to many of the sources cited below.)

Last week, we read in Parashat Shemot Moshe’s demurral at God’s choosing him for the role of liberator. Moshe says לֹא֩ אִ֨ישׁ דְּבָרִ֜ים אָנֹ֗כִי – I am not a man of words (4:10). He then goes on to say in the same verse כִּ֧י כְבַד־פֶּ֛ה וּכְבַ֥ד לָשׁ֖וֹן אָנֹֽכִי – for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue. No further explanation is given, but (the reader is meant to understand) Moshe has diagnosed for himself some inability to communicate God’s message to anyone, least of all a mighty king like Pharaoh. Moshe expresses a similar idea in this week’s parasha. Twice, in 6:12 and 6:30, he refers to himself as עֲרַ֣ל שְׂפָתַ֔יִם, an opaque term alternately translated as “a man of impeded speech” (NJPS), “of uncircumcised lips” (OJPS), “of foreskinned lips” (Fox), “sealed lips” (Artscroll), “who gets tongue tied” (Plaut), among many others translations.

But how can this be? Moshe is Israel’s greatest prophet. He guides Bnei Yisrael through the wilderness for 40 years, instructing them in the law, rallying them to battle, interceding with God on their behalf. He tells God that he is not an ish devarim, a man of words, but he is, quite literally, the ish devarim – the man of Deuteronomy/Devarim; the final book of the Torah, a book called “Words,” records the series of extraordinary speeches that Moshe delivers to his people before they cross the Jordan River into the promised land. So how are we to understand the idea that Moshe was somehow “tongue-tied” or of “impeded speech?”

There is no ready answer to this question. The sages and the medieval commentators differed greatly over the nature of Moshe’s “impediment.” A famous midrash tells the story of how Moshe burned his tongue as a baby in Pharaoh’s court (Shemot R. 1:26), leaving him with a stutter. Rabbeinu Chananel goes so far as to specify the nature of his impediment: from a young age, Moshe had trouble pronouncing sibilants (“otiyot hashinayim” – “teeth letters”), as indicated by the phrase “heavy of mouth” and dentals (“otiyot halashon” = “tongue letters”) as indicated by “heavy of tongue.” Rashi, too, concludes that Moshe was a stutterer, presumably from birth. Some attribute his disability to a birth defect or an early childhood event, others to God’s design; Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, for example, writes, “Being slow of speech he could [speak the unvarnished truth] better than had he been eloquent, for the eloquent speaker easily reacts to the opinions of an audience and tends to incorporate their ideas so that he be better appreciated.” Likewise, Rabbeinu Nissim argues that God deliberately chose a stutterer so that no one could say that it was Moshe’s eloquence, and not God’s might, which convinced the Israelites to follow him (Plaut, 373). This would lend some context to God’s impatient response to Moshe in 4:11: Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? If God had wanted to heal Moshe, God would have.

If we accept the idea that Moshe did have a congenital or acquired speech defect, then again, we are faced with the question of how he came to lead so effectively and, particularly, to deliver the orations of Deuteronomy. Various midrashim ask the same question: “These are the words that Moses spoke…” (Deut. 1:1). Israel said, “Yesterday you said (in Exod. 4:10), ‘I am not a man of words.’ And now you are speaking so much?” (Tanchuma, Devarim 2). Did Moshe indeed have a speech defect, but God cured him at the burning bush? When God says (in 4:12) I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say, does that indicate that God has removed Moshe’s defect? Or perhaps he was cured at the moment of the revelation at Sinai, as another midrash suggests: Prior to the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, some of them had been injured as a result of the hazardous labor they performed with mud and straw…. The Holy blessed One said: It is not right that I should give my law to imperfect people. What did God do then? God instructed the angels to descend and heal them (Tanchuma, Yitro 8:2). Ibn Ezra offers two explanations, both indicating that he lived his whole life with his impediment: one (4:16), that Aharon spoke for him all the time and after Aharon’s death, Aharon’s son Elazar took over as spokesman. And second (6:12), that God did remove his impediment at times, but only when necessary.

Other commentators, however, take exception to the idea that Moshe had a speech defect. “Not a man of words,” “heavy of mouth and tongue,” and “of uncircumcised lips” must mean something else. This is perhaps informed by an attitude, expressed by the Rambam, that the prophet is an almost superhuman figure, endowed with perfected attributes of mind and spirit, and, as Maimonides writes in Mishneh Torah (Yesodei HaTorah, 7:1), shalem b’gufo – “perfect in his body,” a description clearly at odds with any physical defect. Moshe’s complaint to God, writes Rashbam, was that in his many years in Midian, he had simply forgotten his Egyptian, and would therefore be an unsuitable spokesman in the Egyptian court. Shadal explains that he was “simply not a man of words,” that he lacked eloquence and worried that he would not be able to persuade Pharaoh in any matter.

Of course, all of these explanations are ways of dealing with what is, ultimately, an abrupt and unexplained shift from the Moshe of chapters 4 and 6 to the Moshe of the rest of the Torah. We should bear in mind, however, that the description of Moshe’s lack of ability is a first-person account; it is Moshe himself who tells God that he is not “the right guy for the job.” A third-person account, however, tells us something else about Moshe’s character: Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth (Num. 12:3). So many of us are disinclined to believe that we are capable of great things. Whether it is modesty, or fear (of failure, of embarrassment, of exposure), or simply a lack of belief in ourselves, we push away, or even run from what might be a call to greatness. Shakespeare, in Twelfth Night (Act II, scene 5), has the buffoonish Malvolio read the famous words, Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em. Moshe clearly had greatness thrust upon him – despite his manifold refusals, at the end of the day, you don’t say “no” to God. I like to think of Moshe developing gradually over 40 years: overcoming a stutter, if he had one, or taming his insecurity with the passage of time. Like with so many of us, I imagine him getting better at what he did over the course of his career, improving steadily and incrementally. Seen in this light, the orations of Deuteronomy are the great culmination, the full blooming of his character development. It is the maestro at work on his great masterpiece, the ultimate hineni moment. How significant that the man who calls himself עֲרַ֣ל שְׂפָתַ֔יִם/uncircumcised of lips, ends up as a man of milah, a word that means both “circumcision” and “word.” This takes some of the sting out of his end: the man who climbed Mt. Nevo to look out on the promised land before he died was fully-formed, self-actualized, and ready to be “gathered to his kin.” It’s yet another lesson from the master teacher to all of us.

Shabbat shalom.

Sam Levine is the rabbi and cantor of East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn. He received rabbinical ordination from AJR in 2019 and cantorial investiture from JTS in 2004.