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Moshe the reluctant leader – On speech and miracles- Parshat Vaera 5774

‘Heavy Mouth and Uncircumcised Lips’

Last week we touched upon the notion of speech connected to identity and possession of self.  Moshe’s problem with speech  is a vast topic that deserves a full review and analysis. This week , however  I want to develop another idea, also associated with speech, specifically with the way Moshe chooses to describe his perceived disability.

At the beginning of this weeks parasha we hear Moshe describe his reservations in a strange way:

י וַיְדַבֵּר ה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.  יא בֹּא דַבֵּר, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם; וִישַׁלַּח אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵאַרְצוֹ.  יב וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה, לִפְנֵי ָה לֵאמֹר:  הֵן בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא-שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי, וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה, וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם

 10 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 11 ‘Go in, speak unto Pharaoh king of Egypt, that he let the children of Israel go out of his land.’ 12 And Moses spoke before the LORD, saying: ‘Behold, the children of Israel have not hearkened unto me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?’ (chapter 6)

He describes himself as a man of ‘uncircumcised lips’.

At the end of last week’s Parasha we read of the dialogue between God and Moshe where again he describes his perceived speech defect, this time in a slightly different way:

א וַיַּעַן מֹשֶׁה, וַיֹּאמֶר, וְהֵן לֹא-יַאֲמִינוּ לִי, וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי:  כִּי יֹאמְרוּ, לֹא-נִרְאָה אֵלֶיךָ ָה.  ב וַיֹּאמֶר

אֵלָיו ָה, מזה (מַה-זֶּה) בְיָדֶךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, מַטֶּה.  ג וַיֹּאמֶר הַשְׁלִיכֵהוּ אַרְצָה, וַיַּשְׁלִכֵהוּ אַרְצָה וַיְהִי לְנָחָשׁ; וַיָּנָס מֹשֶׁה, מִפָּנָיו.  ד וַיֹּאמֶר ה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, שְׁלַח יָדְךָ, וֶאֱחֹז בִּזְנָבוֹ; וַיִּשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיַּחֲזֶק בּוֹ, וַיְהִי לְמַטֶּה בְּכַפּוֹ.  ה לְמַעַן יַאֲמִינוּ, כִּי-נִרְאָה אֵלֶיךָ ָה אֱלֹקֵי אֲבֹתָם:  אֱלֹקֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹקֵי יִצְחָק, וֵאלֹקֵי יַעֲקֹב.  ו וַיֹּאמֶר ָה לוֹ עוֹד, הָבֵא-נָא יָדְךָ בְּחֵיקֶךָ, וַיָּבֵא יָדוֹ, בְּחֵיקוֹ; וַיּוֹצִאָהּ, וְהִנֵּה יָדוֹ מְצֹרַעַת כַּשָּׁלֶג.  ז וַיֹּאמֶר, הָשֵׁב יָדְךָ אֶל-חֵיקֶךָ, וַיָּשֶׁב יָדוֹ, אֶל-חֵיקוֹ; וַיּוֹצִאָהּ, מֵחֵיקוֹ, וְהִנֵּה-שָׁבָה, כִּבְשָׂרוֹ.  ח וְהָיָה, אִם-לֹא יַאֲמִינוּ לָךְ, וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ, לְקֹל הָאֹת הָרִאשׁוֹן–וְהֶאֱמִינוּ, לְקֹל הָאֹת הָאַחֲרוֹן.  ט וְהָיָה אִם-לֹא יַאֲמִינוּ גַּם לִשְׁנֵי הָאֹתוֹת הָאֵלֶּה, וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּן לְקֹלֶךָ–וְלָקַחְתָּ מִמֵּימֵי הַיְאֹר, וְשָׁפַכְתָּ הַיַּבָּשָׁה; וְהָיוּ הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר תִּקַּח מִן-הַיְאֹר, וְהָיוּ לְדָם בַּיַּבָּשֶׁת.  י וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-ָה, בִּי אֲדֹנָי, לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי גַּם מִתְּמוֹל גַּם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁם, גַּם מֵאָז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל-עַבְדֶּךָ:  כִּי כְבַד-פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן, אָנֹכִי

1 And Moses answered and said: ‘But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice; for they will say: The LORD hath not appeared unto thee.’ 2 And the LORD said unto him: ‘What is that in thy hand?’ And he said: ‘A rod.’ 3 And He said: ‘Cast it on the ground.’ And he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from before it. 4 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Put forth thy hand, and take it by the tail–and he put forth his hand, and laid hold of it, and it became a rod in his hand– 5 that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath appeared unto thee.’ 6 And the LORD said furthermore unto him: ‘Put now thy hand into thy bosom.’ And he put his hand into his bosom; and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous, as white as snow. 7 And He said: ‘Put thy hand back into thy bosom.–And he put his hand back into his bosom; and when he took it out of his bosom, behold, it was turned again as his other flesh.– 8 And it shall come to pass, if they will not believe there, neither hearken to the voice of the first sign, that they will believe the voice of the latter sign. 9 And it shall come to pass, if they will not believe even these two signs, neither hearken unto thy voice, that thou shalt take of the water of the river, and pour it upon the dry land; and the water which thou takest out of the river shall become blood upon the dry land.’ 10 And Moses said unto the LORD: ‘Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, neither heretofore, nor since Thou hast spoken unto Thy servant; for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue (chapter 4)

In both these narratives Moshe’s reluctancy to take on the mantle of leadership is connected with a problem of speech.

In the second narrative the problem is magnified in the dialogue between Moshe and God.  Moshe is worried the people will not believe him, God reassures him by showing him the miracles he will perform. After having seen the miracles God is capable of, he still resorts to that old cracker – the speech impediment-but who cares?  If Moshe can make a snake from a stick, turn your skin white, and make water into blood, does a small speech defect really matter?

In order to understand what is going on here we need to take a few steps back, understand the historical and cultural climate Moshe was operating in, as well as exploring the meaning behind his speech issues.

On Uncircumcised Lips and Circumcision:

When Moshe describes himself as ‘aral sefatayim’ he is hinting at something significant.  The word ‘aral’ is automatically associated to brit mila – it is the part that is cut off from the male body in order to make ourselves ‘complete’, or in other words in order for man to demonstrate  his willingness to be a covenantal partner with God in perfecting the world.  Brit Mila is God’s message to man that no one is born perfect or complete. Rather our actions, deeds and humanity allow us to fulfil God’s role in this world, not by being Godlike, but rather by perfecting it on his behalf.

Brit Milah is also the moment of identification.  It is the moment we bring our child into the covenant of their forefathers.  That child becomes part of a nation, a history, a memory, an identity.

With this in mind I want to suggest that Moshe description of himself as ‘aral sefatayim’ is hinting at something far deeper than simply a reluctance to ‘speak’.  What Moshe is telling us here is that he cannot be like Pharaoh, he is not like the leaders of the other cultures and nations who present themselves as ‘perfect’, almost as ‘God’s’.  Moshe is saying to God, the imperfection of my speech, is an imperfection of identity.  I am not a true Israelite and I am certainly not a leader in the ranks of the Pharaohs and the Gods of the time.  If I can’t even speak, how can I be a ‘divine’ leader? How can I possibly head a people?

Moshe is the anti hero – he is the not so perfect God like leader.  He has a very physical disability[1] and it is perhaps for this very reason that God chooses him.  God is teaching the People of Israel that leadership does not come through magical speech, authority or divine powers.  The message is clear – God is in heaven and man is on earth, God is perfect and man imperfect.  The only perfection man can hope to achieve is to perfect the world around him by taking responsibility and seeking justice.

A Paradigm Shift:

In the Egyptian culture and the many other pagan cultures of the time, the recognised belief was that man must manipulate the will of the gods, must give up of himself, the imperfect self to satisfy the will of the perfect gods.  He must submit and sacrifice in terror and tribulation to the god’s (and semi gods or God’s chosen – the leaders/Kings/pharoahs).

God comes down to Moshe and teaches him a new and profoundly different message, which generates a paradigm shift.  He teaches the world, the people of Israel and Moshe himself that human leadership is not absolute,  does not belong to God or man alone, but requires a two way relationship, a covenant that is based on mutual responsibility and not absolute power and authority.  A leader that can challenge God in defence of the people he leads rather than subjugate them to his will, is the leader that Moshe eventually learns to become.

In the ancient world the leaders were a kind of semi divine power, even in the two other Abrahamic religions their leaders were divine or semi divine , whereas Moshe is human, enormously human.  We are told at the end of his life, and it is repeated several times that he  is ‘האיש משה’ Moshe the man. Simply a man, not a God, not the ‘son of God’ or a semi divine figure, but purely and simply a human, a person.  Why? Because if we do not understand that there is no one divine other than God, the consequences can be disastrous, as we have seen in world history,  Equally if we do not understand that God does not want our absolute submission and self denial, but rather our dignity and creativity, then again the consequences can also be erroneous.

For Moshe this paradigm shift is hard to envisage.  His continued self denial, insistence that he lacks the skill of an orator, and even a real self identity shows the extent of his  reservations.

If the paradigm shift was difficult for Moshe to appreciate it was doubly problematic for the people.  The for 210 years they had lived under the influence of their Egyptian masters, and together with this came exposure and influence of the Egyptian beliefs and practises.  It is at this point we return to the narrative we bought from last week’s Parasha.  When Moshe asks how the people will believe him, God turns him into some kind of ancient magician. Why? Because that is the language the people understand.  Their exposure to Egyptian life and beliefs has made them into a people who believe in a God because of His power and miracles. Nachum Sarna in his book ‘Exploring Exodus’  explains that:

“Egypt, especially was the classic land of magic, which played a central role in its religious life.  In face magic permeated every aspect of life…..the magician was an important, indeed indispensible religious, functionary.  He possessed the expertise necessary for the manipulation of the mysterious powers.  These skills included the spoken word such as spells and utterances, the use of magical objects such as charms, amulets and ritual practises”.

It is then no surprise that in order to ‘win the people over’, Moshe had to address them through the medium they understood and related to.  It is also therefore not surprising that immediatly following this display of miracles Moshe repeats that he cannot speak.  He is saying to God, i am not qualified to be a miracle worker, i have neither the power of  speech like the Egyption  magicians nor a strong possession of self identity to be the ‘all powerful leader’ you want me to be.  But what Moshe fails to grasp, is that it is exactly for these reasons, for his ‘imperfection’ and human self ponderings and ruminations that God places him as leader.

The people of course will need to move past the ‘miracles’.  They will need to become conscious of a new reality in which God does not consistently manifest Himself through supernatural phenomenon.   They will have to understand that belief is not about mans manipulation of the gods through miracles, or even Gods manipulation of man through ‘persuasive’ acts of wonder.  But rather about the relationship based on the word given and taken (torah shebichtav and Baal peh), about mutual acts of responsibility, and about imperfect man acting to rectify an imperfect world, knowing that somewhere and somehow God is by his side supporting and working together with him.

It is because of this Moshe leadership was of supreme importance, for it taught the people of Israel perhaps the most important lesson of all.   It taught them that they had the power within themselves to be leaders, that to be a King/leader/head of a tribe  does not require divine powers and perfection, but rather human striving and responsibility to perfect the world.  It taught them that a man who by his own admission could not speak can learn to speak and bring the people the written and oral law.  A man whose identity remained enigmatic to himself for so many years grew to love in a selfless and unconditional way his people whom he would eventually would give up his life for.

By choosing Moshe, the man who was of uncircumcised lips – incomplete, imperfect, beautifully and nakedly human, he showed how every man can change, grow, learn and come close to God.  He taught them that an authoritarian almost Godlike leader is not the only model of leadership that exists.

And the people do learn, grow and eventually, through a long 40 years in the desert, understand that what God really wants is a world where he can leave man to take responsibility for himself, his people and world without the need for Gods continual revelation through miracles.  Since in the words of the Rambam such a reality ultimately  ‘ leaves people wary and doubtful, and that is why he (Moshe) was so reluctant to accept the mission of going to Pharaoh…’[2]

I want to end with a quote about Moshe from one of the great thinkers of the last century Martin Buber, who I think summarises much of what we have discussed:

“To begin with the central figures of the Bible saga are not, as in so many hero-tales, merged in or amalgamated with persons belonging to mere mythology; the data regarding their lives have not been interwoven with stories of the gods.  Here all the glorification is dedicated solely to the God who brings about the events. The human being acting under the Gods orders is portrayed in all his untransfigured humanity. The wonder-working staff in his hands does not transform him into a possessor of superhuman powers; when once he uses that staff unbidden, he is subject to judgment. And when he descends from Sinai with radiant face, the radiance is not a shining forth from his own being, but only the reflection of some higher light. This withdrawing of the human being from the mythical elements steeps the tale in an atmosphere of august sobriety, a dry atmosphere, one might almost say, which frequently permits a glimpse of a historical nucleus.”[3]

Shabbat Shalom

But Moses said before the Lord, “Behold, I am of closed lips; so how will Pharaoh hearken to me?”עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִםעֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם


[1] According to Rashi he possessed a stammer, Ibn Ezra suggests he simply could not speak the language of kings and princes, more modern commentaries propose a more metaphorical reading of the speech impediment as being rather a reflection of Moshe psychological inability to express his own identity.  Either way Moshe felt lacking in his abilities.

[2] Rambam: Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah: 8.2

[3] Martin Buber, “Moses the Revelation and the Covenant p.17

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