Speech: Moshe’s Impediment or Merit?

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Judah Kerbel

Moshe Rabbeinu was called to leadership, but he certainly did not call for it. Three times, he attributes his possible inadequacy to his inability to speak well. We saw in last week’s parasha how Moshe responds to his initial summoning. At the beginning, Moshe’s responses to G-d are open-ended. He has some questions about his ethos as it relates to the given task, but he seems to display some receptiveness. As the dialogue continues, though, Moshe becomes increasingly less receptive, asserting that he does not believe he is the right man for the job. One of the reasons he provides is that “I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue (כבד פה וכבד לשון)” (Shemot 4:10). Here, he makes a general prediction that his limitations will compromise his leadership role.

At the beginning of our parasha, G-d tells Moshe to inform B’nei Yisrael that G-d has heard their cries and has a plan to liberate them from Pharaoh’s oppression, but they do not believe Moshe. According to the Torah’s omniscient perspective, it is due to either physical (Rashi) or psychological (Ramban) distress that they dismiss him (6:9). Yet Moshe’s own perception of events was that the reason B’nei Yisrael do not believe him is because of his speech impediment (ערל שפתיים) (6:12) (See Siftei Chachamim there.). So when G-d tells Moshe to speak to Pharaoh, his reaction is “I literally just went to B’nei Yisrael and they didn’t listen to me; kal va-chomer Pharaoh will dismiss me due to my disability!” (See Rashi) In other words, one of his fears, from his perspective, came true, albeit due to an internal attribution that may not have been true. Perplexingly, at this point, the Torah digresses to discuss the pedigree of part of B’nei Yisrael, but then the Torah returns to the exact same point as before: G-d commands Moshe to go to Pharaoh, and Moshe complains for a third time that he is ערל שפתיים.

The questions we must address now are: First, why does Moshe raise his concern regarding his speech impediment three times? What effect does that have on his leadership legacy? Second, what purpose does the interruption about the lineage serve? And third, how do the first two questions connect?

On the one hand, Rashi (Shemot 4:14) brings an opinion from the Gemara (Zevachim 102a) that Moshe should have been the Kohen Gadol, but because he resisted taking this role, Aharon assumed the mantle of priesthood. Rav Amnon Bazak (Nekudat Peticha p. 63) also notes that in the interruption above, which is brought specifically to discuss the lineage of Levi, Aharon’s family receives more attention than Moshe’s family. Furthermore, in 4:14, the Torah highlights Aharon as Halevi, in order to demonstrate that Aharon became who he was only because Moshe refused the role that had originally been carved out for him. According to Rav Bazak, this is the entire purpose of the interruption.

On the other hand, Moshe and Aharon seem to be equal in greatness. During the interruption, which was inserted specifically to speak of Moshe and Aharon’s lineage, the Torah says הוא אהרן ומשה (Shemot 6:26), but then reverses the order in the next pasuk, הוא משה ואהרן. Rashi comments that this is because they were equal in greatness. Ramban suggests that in fact, Moshe’s recoil from the speaking task is commendable and accentuates his humility, the central trait that the Torah uses to describe Moshe. R’ David Zvi Hoffman suggests that even though Moshe was incorrect in attributing his initial lack of success to his speech, G-d agrees anyway that Moshe should not attempt to speak to Pharaoh alone. The solution brought in the next pasuk (Shemot 6:13), then, is that G-d commands both Moshe and Aharon, so that Aharon will be the speaker, as Rashi explains. In this vein, the interruption serves as an explanation to understand the roots of Moshe and Aharon coming together for this task. It was thus appropriate that Moshe made his claim, and Aharon then serves a complementary role.

I think that if G-d desired, G-d could have compelled Moshe to speak to Pharaoh. G-d could have told him he does not have a choice, or soothed him by affirming that G-d will make it all work. But I want to suggest two reasons why it was important not to do that:

  1. It’s important for leaders to know their own limits. Moshe’s resistance, G-d concedes, is healthy on some level. I see the Ramban’s insight as extremely valuable, as Moshe could have allowed this to become an ego boost for him – “I will be the hero remembered for the rest of history as the savior of the Jews!” But his wrestling with a very real challenge as it relates to his task serves as a model for us to address those relevant issues before taking on a high-risk opportunity.
  2. Moshe reminds us that being the greatest leader does not (necessarily) equal being the most charismatic leader. This is a very serious issue in our community today that threatens to ruin people’s spiritual lives. The recent resurfacing of Marc Gafni’s offenses should reinforce the need to remember that glitz is not leadership. Moshe may not have mesmerized his audiences, but he ultimately led B’nei Yisrael with the utmost integrity.

Moshe’s reticence, while perhaps uncomfortable to experience in the narrative, serves an important purpose. His self-awareness and willingness to be frank about his limitations do not diminish him; aderabah, Moshe improves the situation for Klal Yisrael by allowing Aharon to share in his greatness.

Judah Kerbel (SBM 2015) is in his second year at RIETS and his first year at the Bernard Revel Graduate School, concentrating in medieval Jewish history.
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