When Moses Stuttered

Moses is the not the first character in Bible to have a physical deficit. Isaac is blind, Jacob walks with a limp, David is too small to fight the tall and mighty Goliath. But Moses is the first Biblical hero to use his deficit –“being slow of speech and heavy of tongue” (Exodus 410)—as an excuse. In the month of February we read about Moses in the Exodus section of the Torah. Moses escapes Egypt to lead the easy life as a shepherd under the protection of his father-in-law a Midian priest. When Moses is called and God commands to end his people’s suffering in Egypt, Moses is reluctant and gives God several excuses as to why he is not the man for the job. Is he frightened? Does he find the whole liberation from slavery plan unrealistic? We are not sure but our Rabbis comment that God is not happy with him. He removes the mantle of Israelite priesthood from him and assigns it to his older brother Aaron and his sons. Moses has not been fired; he has been demoted.

The Rabbis go on to speculate as to why Moses has problems with his speech. It has never been mentioned before. Does he stutter when he speaks? Does he have trouble with pronunciation? Has he forgotten his Egyptian? One rabbi gives a literal diagnosis from how Moses describes his speech (“heavy of palate, heavy of tongue”) meaning that he could not say his palatal consonants like “z,” “s,” “sh,” and “ts” and also his apico-dentals like “d,” “t” and “l.” One with such speech difficulties would be rendered all but incomprehensible.

A well-known midrash tells the story about how the Pharoah’s counselors were alarmed when baby Moses kept reaching for Pharoah’s crown and some proposed killing him taking it as a sign that one day he would dethrone the Pharoah. They gave the baby a test presenting him with a with a golden bowl and an even more brightly glowing coal to see which he chose — and when his hand guided by an angel grabbed the coal, thereby flunking this primitive IQ test, his life was spared. Sticking his burned finger in his mouth, however, he scorched his tongue too, as a result of which his speech was permanently impaired. Hillel Halkin notes that this would cause permanent lisping rather than stuttering.

Despite his limitations, Moses agrees finally to accept the role of God’s messenger and heads down to Egypt to speak, with Aaron’s assistance and with the power of God behind him, before Pharaoh. No mention of his speech deficit is made as he grows into leadership and he seems to have overcome or dealt with the challenge quite well. He is articulate. He is a teacher speaking before thousands. The entire book of Deuteronomy is devoted to his last lectures to the people including a beautiful, poetic flourish at the end!

There is actually one more mention of Moses’ oral problem, by Moses himself, in Exodus Chapter 6 after Pharaoh turned down the offer to free the slaves and further embittered the lives of the people. Moses refers to himself as aral sefatayim; “I am a man of impeded lips” (Exodus 6:12). Most readers take this unusual image to be yet another reference to the stuttering, stammering, or lisping described in Chapter 4. Aral Sefatayim should be understood as “uncircumcised lips,” lips that are sealed, blocked, impure, or immature as in a tree under three years old (Orlah). Moses is talking about his deficit as something that makes him feel inadequate. It makes him turn inward instead of outward. God is demanding that he be a successful and articulate leader and Moses sees that this physical obstacle is much too large for him.

The earliest Aramaic translation of the Bible known as Targum Onkelos (1st century) characterizes Moses’ deficit as an asset translating “slow of speech and heavy of tongue” as being “weighty of speech and deep of tongue” turning Moses’ self-description into a prophecy for his future. Onkelos’ creative translation adds hope to the story and inspires us to live beyond our limitations.

I am amazed to meet people every day that overcome or cope with physical deficits and make them a smaller part of their lives. With God’s help, they can achieve great things. Not everyone can be a Moses but we can live with the gifts that God has placed in our body to fulfill our purposes here on earth. – 21 Shevat 5777

This post written by Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, New Light Congregation

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