Parashat Vaera

Lost in Translation?

Aaron bridged an existential gap that divided Moses and the Israelite slaves.

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Parashat Vaera continues the conversation between God and Moses following Moses' first encounter with Pharaoh. God persists in his alternately tender and impatient wooing of the reluctant emissary, while Moses insists that he is unfit for the task. As before, Moses' feelings of inadequacy center on his difficulty with speech, now captured, ironically, by his poetic lament: "I am uncircumcised of lips" (Exodus 6:12).

Moses' Impediment

The Torah does not identify the nature or origins of Moses' difficulty. Rashi postulates that Moses had an actual speech impediment--perhaps a stutter or a severe lisp. A midrash explains that Moses' impeded speech dated from infancy when the angel Gabriel had guided him to place a hot coal in his mouth. Perhaps Moses was deeply shy, a shepherd who preferred the company of animals over people with their insatiable demand for words.

american jewish world serviceLending further obscurity, Moses' impediment is wholly self-described. We learn of it only through his own protests at having been chosen as Israel's liberator. Whereas the omniscient biblical narrator provides the descriptions of its other central characters, it is silent on Moses' "heavy-mouthed and heavy-tongued" (Exodus 4:10) condition. The absence of this narrative corroboration implies that Moses' impediment loomed larger in his own mind than as a handicap perceptible to others.

Whatever the impediment's nature, it is clear that each utterance exacted a painful toll on Moses. God therefore sends Aaron to be his brother's mouthpiece, and Aaron remains at Moses' side as the two heap threats and plagues upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Indeed, it is Aaron who initiates the first three plagues, stretching his rod over the waters to bring forth blood and frogs and hitting the earth to summon lice.

While the brothers seem to have settled well into their complementary roles, a nagging difficulty remains. In last week's parashah, God dismissed Moses' protestations by saying: "Who gives man speech?...Is it not I, the Lord?" (Exodus 4:11) Why then, instead of forcing Moses to suffer through humiliation and anxiety, doesn't God eliminate the impediment? Why offer Aaron as a crutch rather than solve the problem?

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Rachel Farbiarz

Rachel Farbiarz is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law. Rachel worked as a clerk for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, after which she practiced law focusing on the civil rights and humane treatment of prisoners.