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Yom Sheini, 12 Tammuz 5778

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Va-eira, Moses went to the Israelites to speak to them of their upcoming redemption. But as the text teaches, “they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage” (Exodus 6:9). Following this, God encouraged Moses to go instead and speak to Pharaoh. Moses responded by saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!” (Exodus 6:12).

Much has been made of this phrase “araval s’fatayim”, “impeded speech,” “heavy of tongue,” or “uncircumcised lips.”

According to a midrash, Moses gained this speech impediment due to a test from Pharaoh when Moses was a little child. According to this midrash, Moses, as a baby, kept reaching for Pharaoh’s crown, which Pharaoh interpreted to mean that Moses was going to supplant him. Fearing this, Pharaoh arranged a test. He placed in front of Moses a golden bowl and a burning piece of coal. If Moses reached for the bowl, he would be executed. When Moses began to reach for the bowl, an angel guided his hand to the glowing piece of coal instead, which Moses grasped then put his burning finger in his mouth, thus sparing his life, but also giving him a speech impediment.

The most common interpretation is that Moses had a stutter. According to Bahye Ben Asher, a 14th Century Commentator, Moses had trouble pronouncing certain words because he had a stutter.

However, there are also other interpretations. In the words of Ibn Ezra, an 11th Century Commentator, Moses always had a speech impediment, and he was only able to speak freely because God enabled him to pronounce difficult words.

What this interpretation teaches us is that Moses had trouble finding the right words, especially words of compassion, until he tapped into the Divine Source of inspiration. Or to put it another way, words of compassion should come from a place within the heart that is both holy and sacred.

Sadly, we live in a world where words, phrases, and ideas are being thrown around that are neither holy nor sacred. They are denigrating, mean, and hurtful. It is easy to get caught up in the trap of either repeating the same words or returning the rhetoric with our own hurtful speech.

In Judaism, we have the wonderful tradition of shemirat lashon, or guarding one’s speech. May we find inspiration in the story of Moses, whose lips were Divinely opened to offer words of comfort and compassion. And may we be so inclined do to the same.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff