Commentary on Parashat Vaera, Exodus 6:2 - 9:35
The previous Torah portion ends with the Israelites suffering greatly in servitude to Pharaoh; rather than heed God’s instruction to let his slaves go, Pharaoh increases their workload and even refuses to give them straw for the bricks they must make. Moses goes back to God, and in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, God reassures him that the Israelites will indeed be delivered by God’s own action. The plagues upon Egypt then commence, but Pharaoh will not be moved. Eventually, God “hardens” Pharaoh’s heart, and the plagues upon Egypt continue, becoming more wondrous each time.
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.’ But Moses appealed to the Lord, saying: ‘The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me–a man of impeded speech!'” So the Lord spoke to both Moses and Aaron in regard to the Israelites and Pharaoh king of Egypt, instructing them to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt. (Exodus 6:10-13)
Moses complains to God several times before this that God’s mission for him–to proclaim to Pharaoh that he must free the Hebrew slaves–is impossible, or too difficult, or that Moses is the wrong man for the job. Moses seems not only to doubt his own capabilities but he also comes across as a bit jaded about human nature.
He points out that a slave people isn’t likely to believe the wild reports of a wandering shepherd regarding their redemption, and Pharaoh is even less likely to heed seditious suggestions in the name of an unknown God. In this verse, as before, Moses protests that he is not a fluent speaker; it’s not clear whether this means that he had a physical speech defect, or was self-conscious and inarticulate. (Cf. 4:10.)
Digging a bit deeper into the question of Moses’s “impeded speech,” we find that even explanations of the term fudge a bit as to whether it is a physiological or emotional problem. In this verse, quoted above, the literal translation of Moses’ complaint is that he has “uncircumcised lips,” which doesn’t help us at all.
Rashi says that “uncircumcised” means “closed,” or “stopped up,” and gives several examples from other verses to corroborate this definition. However, he doesn’t say what it actually means to have “closed” lips — it could be a kind of thickness of speech, or it could mean that his words don’t flow very well, that he has inadequate rhetorical skills.
Moses makes his complaint a bit differently in the earlier verse referred to: “Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, not yesterday and not from the day before, nor from the time You have spoken to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” (4:11)
Kaved in this verse literally means “heavy,” and is sometimes also translated as “slow of mouth and slow of tongue,” or something like that. Once again, it’s not clear exactly what Moses means; the only thing that’s clear is that Moses thinks this condition disqualifies him from being God’s agent in the task of confronting Pharaoh.
Nahum Sarna, a biblical scholar, in his book Exploring Exodus: The Heritage of Biblical Israel, offers a third possibility. Moses grew up as an Egyptian, speaking the language of the land — perhaps he’s trying to tell God that after so many years in the land of Midian, his fluency in Egyptian isn’t what it used to be. Thus, he doesn’t possess the language skills to engage in this task of high-level communication and negotiation.
After looking at the various interpretations of Moses’s protests, Sarna does something unusual for a Bible scholar (whether of the old-time rabbinic variety or of the modern academic persuasion): He tells us that the exact nature of Moses’ problem really doesn’t matter at all. Moses felt inadequate to address Pharaoh as God’s agent; God replies that it’s God’s words, not Moses’s, that will be spoken. To quote Sarna:
To this, God replies with what in effect is…the essence of Biblical prophecy. The chosen messenger conveys not his own word but the word of God, and he does so because he irresistibly compelled by a Force and a Will more powerful than his own. Prophetic eloquence is not a matter of native talent, but of revelation that derives from the supreme Source of truth that is external to the speaker.
The facile talker, the golden-tongued, the consummate demagogue, is not the recipient of the prophetic word or the vehicle of its transmission. Prophetic eloquence is a divine gift bestowed for [a] purpose on him who is elected, often against his will, to be the messenger. In these circumstances, experience and talent are irrelevant qualities.
To me, this explanation of Moses’ protests is reassuring and discomforting at the same time. It’s reassuring because we can take from it hope that indeed, despite our human limitations and frailties, we can accomplish our unique tasks in life. To be sure, most of us don’t have a destiny as dramatic as Moses’, but each of us is commissioned for something, and given tools and talents and challenges to meet as best we can.
Moses, despite his absolutely extraordinary life, is also just like all the rest of us: called by God to be a partner in the work of Redemption, called by a God who has faith in us even when we don’t have faith in ourselves.
It’s reassuring to think that God chose not the strongest or the fastest or the smartest or the most beautiful, but implanted Divine Truth into a person “slow of mouth and slow of tongue.” If Moses could rise to the occasion and speak words to Pharaoh that would change the whole course of human history, then I too can rise to the occasion and express to the world whatever sparks of Divinity I have been given.
Yet this is exactly what is discomforting about these verses: they strip from us all our excuses, all our rationales for procrastination, all our lack of self-confidence masquerading as humility. By appointing Moses, the man of “uncircumcised lips,” as a prophet-president-diplomat-preacher (i.e., a man completely dependent on words), God is telling the rest of us: You have to get on with your spiritual mission in life, despite your limitations, despite your self-doubts, despite all the problems that seem to be in the way.
It’s much easier to shrug off the task as beyond our capacities or to wish fervently, as Moses did, that God would appoint someone else in our place. Not everyone is chosen to lead a nation of slaves to freedom, but each of us must consider seriously and apply to ourselves Rabbi Tarfon’s famous challenge: “You are not obliged to finish the task, but neither are you free to neglect it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:21)
Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.