There’s a story told about the hasidic master Reb Zusya, a student of the Maggid of Mezritch. Zusya, it seems, was never able to absorb and pass on his teacher’s words. As soon as the Maggid would begin a sermon, quoting a verse from the Torah that began with “and God said” or “and God spoke,” Zusya, overcome with ecstasy, would begin to scream and gesture wildly and have to be carried from the room, his mind blown by the very idea that God spoke.
The weight of words, the power of speech to create and destroy worlds, lies at the very heart of biblical tradition. At the beginning of Genesis, God speaks the world into being and then transmits this precious gift of speech to the first human, who is immediately called upon to come up with names for all the other creatures. Countless biblical moments expose the raw power of voice, divine and human, to transform or stymy, to heal or destroy.
How strange it is then that Moses, the great prophet and teacher who leads the Israelites out of slavery, is a man who struggles to speak. When called to leadership by God, he replies that he is not an ish d’varim, a man of words, and that he is “heavy of mouth and tongue.” Later, Moses describes himself as “uncircumcised of lips,” giving rise to legends about his speech impediment and leading a frustrated God to recruit his older brother Aaron to be his mouthpiece.
What, I wonder, is Moses’ problem? Why are words so difficult for him?
Moses famously encounters God in the burning bush while he is living incognito as a simple shepherd in the land of Midian. He has fled Egypt, run away from the Pharaoh’s palace in which he was raised and abandoned his own people, who are still suffering the horrors of slavery. Living as a stranger in a strange land, cut off from his lineage, Moses is a man of confused identity, hiding even from himself in self-imposed exile.
No wonder, then, that the Zohar, the foundational work of Jewish mysticism, offers this striking explanation for Moses’ inarticulateness: “Moses is voice, and speech, which is his word, was in exile … As long as speech was in exile, voice withdrew from it, and the word was obstructed, voiceless.” Moses, in exile from the truth of his being, lacked the power to express inner truth through speech.
I recognize this exile, the hiding that divorces words from voice. Growing up in 1950s suburbia, I learned to blend in, to hide in plain sight. It was an unspoken dictum: don’t stand out, don’t speak up, and above all, don’t tell people you’re Jewish. For many years, I lived two lives, secular and Jewish, keeping them completely separate. My white skin made that easier. Gradually, my Jewish voice grew muffled. Waves of thought and feeling would rise in me, only to slam up against a dam in my throat.
Sometime in my mid-40s I began to feel an urgency to reclaim all the voices within me, including my loud, messy, loving, womanly Jewish voice, and to infuse my words with the full, flowing range of voice. I began to take singing lessons and discovered that the dam in my throat was holding at bay a wellspring of tears that, for two years, gushed forth every time I sang.
For Moses, the internal split begins to heal as he finally accepts his mission and returns to lead the Israelites out of slavery and into a series of mind-shattering, soul-altering encounters with the God of their ancestors. Much of this saga unfolds in the wilderness, an untamed, unbounded space of both terror and potential.
The Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, derives from the same root as dibbur, speech. Here in the wilderness of Sinai, in the very midbar where Moses first encountered God, the Israelite people now experience God’s awesome presence in the sounds of crashing thunder and shofar blasts, backing away in fear as Moses ascends the flaming mountain.
A poignant verse in the book of Exodus describes the mythic moment of reciprocal connection between Moses and God: “As the sound (kol) of the shofar grew stronger and stronger, Moses would speak (y’dabber) and God would respond to him with a voice (kol).” (Exodus 19:19) It is in these moments, the Zohar teaches, as Torah (literally, “instruction”) begins to course through him, that voice and speech unite for Moses and his eloquence emerges. From this moment on, and for the next 40 years, he will serve as a channel, translating pure cosmic sound into human speech, words of Torah with which we grapple to this very day.
While it may not be my calling to meet with God atop a smoking mountain, I do aspire to journey through those wildernesses of life, the untamed, uncensored spaces where voice can flow effortlessly into words that express the truth of my being, the convictions of my heart and spirit. When I’m privileged to hear others giving voice in this way, their words penetrate deeply into my heart, stir my mind and change something in me forever.