And Moshe said to Hashem, “Please, my Lord, I am not a man of words,
even from yesterday nor the day before—even from the very first time You
spoke to Your servant—I am heavy of mouth and of tongue.” And Hashem said
to him, “Who gives man his mouth, and who makes him dumb, or deaf, or
sighted or blind—is it not I, Hashem?” [4:10-11]
Rashi seems to understand Hashem’s response thus: “You, Moshe, are worried
about your speech impediment. If you consider Who’s sending you, you
should realize yourself that it’s silly to be concerned. Didn’t I ‘give
you a mouth’ help you to say the right words when you had to plead your
case before Pharaoh after slaying the Egyptian taskmaster? Didn’t I make
Pharaoh ‘dumb’ in failing to follow through with your execution, his
servants ‘deaf’ to not take their command seriously, and the
executioners ‘blind’ when you escaped their grasp and strolled away from
your own execution? If I’m sending you on this mission to Pharaoh and
Israel, you can trust that I’ll be there for you when the time comes to
speak your words.”
The Ran (Derashos Ha-Ran 3) tries to understand how it’s possible that
Moshe, whose prophecy reached levels that the Torah attests have never and
will never again be attained by mortals, could have been lacking in any
way, all the more so in his speech. Speech is the basis of all prophecy;
Navi, Hebrew for prophet, also implies niv sefasa’im/speech of the lips.
Sure, Hashem can promise that when the time comes, He will put the right
words in his mouth, and his speech will emerge unflawed. But then again,
Hashem could have gifted Moshe with eloquence.
Reish Lakish in the Gemara (Sotah 12b) notes that the Torah calls Moshe
both an infant and a youth (2:6): “And [Pharaoh’s daughter] opened it, and
she saw the infant, and a youth was crying.” This teaches us, he says,
that Moshe looked like an infant, but had the voice of a youth. Said Rabbi
Nechemia, “If so, you are making Moshe a ba’al mum/blemished!”
R’ Nechemia apparently found it inconceivable that Moshe, who conversed
with Hashem “face to face,” could be blemished in any way. How does he
deal with Moshe’s speech issues?
The Gemara (Menachos 85a) says that when Moshe came to Egypt and began
performing his wonders, Yochna and Mamre, Egypt’s greatest ‘magicians,’
scoffed at him. “Moshe, would you bring straw to Afarayim [a town where
there was straw in abundance]?” Egypt was a land of magic like none in the
world, and these two wisecrackers thought little of Moshe’s intentions to
wow them with his wonders.
Moshe’s answer? “People say, ‘To a city of vegetables, bring vegetables.’”
Well, who’s right? Should we save our tricks for the naïve and
uninitiated, or should we sell our coals in Newcastle?
It really depends. If your veggies are tired and second-rate at best,
you’d better peddle them from your corner store where someone in a fix
might just go for them; just don’t try selling them in the St. Lawrence
Market where the goods are fresher and cheaper. But if what you’ve got is
really good. If it’s better than good, even better than the best—if it’s
something ‘out of this world’—then there’s no better place to hawk it than
in the central market, surrounded by your inferior competitors; in their
face, so to speak.
In their flawed understanding of what was about to happen, Yochna and
Mamrei thought Moshe was a mediocre magician trying to show off his
prowess in a land where they eat, drank, and slept magic. They scoffed.
Moshe’s response: “Who dares to bring his vegetables to the great market?
Only one who knows he’s got something no one else does!”
One of the tenets of our faith, explains the Ran, is that Hashem is the
Doer of all deeds, Master of the Universe, before Whom the laws of nature
crumble and bow away. We were not simply told that it is so. Hashem
demonstrated it to us with the wonders of the ten plagues and the Exodus
from Egypt, which culminated in the splitting of the Red Sea.
Egypt was the soil from which the seedling shoots of our faith would
sprout. This was no accident. Hashem chose to work His wonders in the
cauldron of magic. The Egyptians, one might say, knew every trick in the
book. When the great sorcerers of Egypt proclaimed (8:15), “This is the
finger of Hashem!” it carried the weight of authority. Anywhere else in
the world, and people might have said, “Take your tricks to Egypt.”
If challenged to distill Jewish faith into two tenets, I would suggest the
following. (1) Hashem’s Greatness: That Hashem, our G-d, is all powerful,
all knowing, controls all, has always existed and will always exist. (2)
Truth of the Torah: That the Torah is the immutable word of Hashem,
unchangeable, significant down to the crowns on the letters and the space
between them, to be studied and practiced with unfailing dedication
If Egypt was the garden in which the seeds of principle #1 took root, then
Moshe Rabbeinu was the vessel through which #2 was transmitted. If Egypt’s
role was to proclaim beyond any doubt that “this is the hand of Hashem,”
then Moshe’s task was likewise to leave no doubt that his prophecy was the
pure, unmitigated word of Hashem without any personal input.
Had Moshe been a skilled and elegant orator, it might have left room to
say that his exceptionally sharp tongue and eloquent speech were what so
inspired the Jews. His poor speech left no doubts; this was none other
than Hashem’s word.
In this light, Moshe’s lack of oratorical skill was not only not
an ‘impediment,’ it was a necessity. Moshe was no ba’al mum—his stuttered
speech was by design.
This, explains the Ran, was what Hashem answered Moshe when Moshe
complained he felt daunted by the task in light of his difficulties: Who
gives man his mouth, and who makes him dumb, or deaf, or sighted or blind—
is it not I, Hashem?—Do you imagine that had I so desired, I could not
have given you the most beautiful speech? Is it not I who decides who
shall speak, and who shall be dumb, who sighted and who not? Do you think
that anything I do is coincidental? You should have realized that if I
made you this way, there must be a reason.
Hashem’s providence, of course, extends not only to the great Moshe, but
even to us lowly beings too. Even the things about ourselves we most
dislike are there by design. Having the wisdom and determination to
understand the whys and hows, well, that’s so much about what finding our
way though life’s mazes and labyrinths is about.