Parshas VaEra – I Have Lips But Cannot Speak
A speech impaired redeemer?
Why did Moshe have a speech impediment? Many of us are familiar with the Midrash that states that Moshe had burned his tongue on a hot coal when he was just a small child in Pharaoh’s court (See Shemos Rabbah 1:26).
Others understand that Moshe did not have an actual physical impairment; rather, he was either painfully shy or he didn’t possess a full command of the language needed to communicate his message properly (See Rashbam and Sforno to Ex. 4:10).
But our question isn’t how he became speech impaired, but rather why did Hashem want the redeemer to be speech impaired? After all, Moshe was endowed with so many other physical attributes of strength, height, good looks, etc. Why was the person dispatched to redeem the people specifically disabled in speech?
Rabbeinu Nissm of Gerona (14th cent.) suggests that Hashem was quite deliberate in choosing a redeemer with impeded speech. The problem with a silver-tongued leader is that many times he succeeds in persuading the people not because his arguments are just or correct but rather because he has the power of rhetoric and knows how to sway people (think Adolph Hitler). Hashem specifically wanted Moshe to not have the “gift of gab” in order to demonstrate that his words were accepted not on the basis of rhetoric but because of their justness and truthfulness. This is an example of how sometimes being gifted with a charismatic trait can sometimes be a liability.
Moshe’s view of himself
But let’s look at how Moshe describes his speech impairment. In Parshas Shemos, when Hashem first asked Moshe to be the redeemer, Moshe’s response was (4:10)
לֹא֩ אִ֨ישׁ דְּבָרִ֜ים אָנֹ֗כִי גַּ֤ם מִתְּמוֹל֙ גַּ֣ם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁ֔ם גַּ֛ם מֵאָ֥ז דַּבֶּרְךָ֖ אֶל־עַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֧י כְבַד־פֶּ֛ה וּכְבַ֥ד לָשׁ֖וֹן אָנֹֽכִי
I have never been a man of words… for I have a heavy mouth and a heavy tongue.
Yet, when Moshe tried to reason with Hashem in our parsha as to why going to Pharaoh was futile, he expressed his inability to speak in a different way by calling himself an “עֲרַ֥ל שְׂפָתָֽיִם”, literally, a man of “uncircumcised lips.” Why the different language? What is the difference between having a “heavy” mouth vs. an “uncircumcised” one? And why did Moshe refer to his “mouth” and “tongue” originally, and now refers to his “lips”?
The sound of silence
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, in describing how people can persuasively communicate with each other, noted an interesting phenomenon of noise. When I’m trying to speak with someone, if my ambient surroundings are quiet, if the wind is calm and there’s no noisy machinery or music operating in the background, it’s quite easy for the other person to hear me. But when there’s a lot of background noise or it’s very windy, the other person won’t be able to hear me no matter how articulate or loud I may be (just think about all the times you’ve had to ask someone to mute themselves on Zoom!).
This, he explained, was the problem with communication in the Diaspora. We know, based on the prophets, that in the end of days, the world will come to recognize the G-d of the Jewish people. We even say in our High Holiday liturgy, in the prayer known as “ויאתיו כל לעבדך”, that in the Messianic Age, the entire world will clamor to Eretz Israel to hear the word of Hashem: “וישמעו רחוקים ויבאו” – “Those far away will hear and come.” But how will this happen? How will the world hear the voice of Hashem amidst the turbulent wind and all of the distracting noise of the Exile? No matter how clear that call is, the background noise and chatter will all but drown it out!
Rabbi Nachman concludes that the only way for a message of holiness to break through to those far away is to first stop all of the background noise. The only way to accomplish that, he says, is through acts of lovingkindness. By showing love and acceptance to others, we cause the noisy winds to abate. This then allows the world to hear the messages of Hashem and His Torah (This is all presented beautifully by Rabbi Hillel Zeitlin in “על גבול שני עולמות”, 353-360, citing from Likutei Moharan 17).
The mouth in exile
Perhaps this is what Moshe was trying to express to Hashem: Before I returned to Egypt and You asked me to become the redeemer, I didn’t feel I was adequate because of my own internal speech disadvantages. That which is inside me, my “mouth” and my “tongue,” are impeded either physically or psychologically, so I don’t think I’ll do a very good job at being Your spokesperson.
But after Moshe came to Egypt and interacted with the Jewish slaves, he noted an additional liability: Here in the Galus (Diaspora), my words cannot get across. That’s not even because of my inherent speech problems, but rather because of the turbulent and noisy air of Galus. My “lips”, the external-most part of my speech faculty, is “uncircumcised,” that is, covered over and impeded by all the background distractions of living a life in Galus. For the Jewish slaves, that distraction is in their servitude. For Pharaoh, that distraction is in his great wealth and power, and his view that he’s in absolute control. Either way, my message, even if articulated in my mouth effectively, will never get past my lips to reach the ears of those who most need to hear it. That is what he meant by describing himself with “uncircumcised lips.”
Aharon’s calming nature
What was Hashem’s response? “אַהֲרֹ֥ן אָחִ֖יךָ יִהְיֶ֥ה נְבִיאֶֽךָ” (7:1). Go to Pharaoh with your brother Aharon. You will be the one to provide the message, but Aharon will be the one to clear the noisy air between you and Pharaoh. How so? Aharon represents the man who “loves peace, pursues peace, loves all people, and brings them to the Torah” (Pirkei Avos 1:12). Aharon’s soothing voice and demeanor will enable Pharaoh to hear your message. It will only be out of a hardened heart that he will refuse to let the people go, but at least he will hear what you have to say.
Rabbi Hillel Zeitlin, a great scholar of Chassidus in the early 20th century, utilized this teaching of Rabbi Nachman to attempt to address the rise of Communism in Russia and Nazism in Germany that were on the horizon during his lifetime. Rabbi Zeitlin saw within these two evil movements the potential for great holiness to emerge in their aftermath, when their noisy winds would finally be abated.
And what of us, in this very noisy and turbulent 21st century? Things have gotten so noisy that we can’t hear each other anymore. Even our fellow Jews are sometimes so distant from us and we from them, that we can’t understand each other, and it sometimes seems like we’re speaking a foreign language. The noise has gotten so bad, that it’s sometimes even hard to hear ourselves think. Our social media, our entertainment venues, our voice and text messages, drown out the real messages of truth and purpose.
Stop the noise, let Divine reason in
Ultimately, we should first make the effort to abate the noise. Here’s what I’d suggest: Turn off your social media, your WhatsApp, your Instagram, etc., and ignore the alerts and updates that are pinging from your smartphone. Better yet, turn off all the alert options so that you can allow yourself some peace and quiet. Make a conscious effort to decrease your frequency of reading the news; don’t worry, the world won’t blow up if you’re not watching. Don’t get caught up with the latest ideology or political movement. Try to stay focused on loving your fellow man and performing random acts of kindness to each other.
That is how we can abate the noise, and how we can allow our voices of Torah and Divine reason to be heard. Yes, there will always be the Pharaoh’s whose hearts will still be hardened. But for all the others, we will be able to make a difference and influence the future. May our efforts at trying to make the world a better place bear fruit so that we too are witness to the Redemption, bb”a.