5767 - #14


In expressing his reluctance to undertake the mission to free the Jewish nation from the bondage of Egypt, Moshe Rabbeinu continuously refers to his weaknesses in regard to the power of speech. In Shemot 4:10, he declares himself not to be a man of words ki ch’vad peh u’ch’vad lashon, for he has difficulty with his speech and his tongue. Ramban understands this self-critique to reflect a true physical weakness in Moshe;1 as Rashi simply states, Moshe had difficulty talking. This understanding of Moshe’s words is born out by God’s response in the following verse; as God is the Divine Master of the physical realm, Moshe’s present physical problem is irrelevant. In fact, this answer is so simple that, it seems, Hashem is even bothered by Moshe’s argument. As Ramban further explains, if Hashem had wanted Moshe to speak clearly, Moshe would have spoken clearly – and if God did not want Moshe to speak clearly, it must have been that this impediment would not cause any problems.2 The force of this argument would seem to be enough to clearly indicate that there is no reason for Moshe to be concerned about his power of speech – yet Moshe still seems to raise this issue two more times. Strangely, in the face of this strong rebuke by God, Moshe still challenges his ability to meet the demands of his mission because of the concern over his power of speech.

            In both Shemot 6:12 and 6:30, 3 Moshe appears to again refer to his weakness in speech, and indeed Rashi and Ramban both describe Moshe’s concern as the same physical concern that he had already raised. The question is obvious: why re-visit this argument which God had already rejected? Ramban answers that the distinction, in this case, is that Hashem was now commanding him to speak to Pharaoh. Previously, Moshe was questioning his very ability to speak, to properly convey the message to his fellow Jews. Now, Ramban explains, Moshe was questioning the very propriety of someone with a speech deficiency speaking before Pharaoh. Moshe’s original challenge concerned solely his very ability to speak, his very ability to convey the message. In his latter challenges, his concern has broadened. Speech is not an activity performed in a vacuum; it is an act of communication. To be an effective communicator, one must be concerned about himself/herself as the one speaking but, one must also be concerned about the one listening. Moshe’s concern, in speaking before Pharaoh, was not his ability to communicate per se but, rather, the nature of the listener and how he will respond, not solely to the message, but also to the messenger. Moshe’s concern was not how his speech impediment would affect his ability to articulate his message but, rather, how the listener would respond to the speech impediment itself.

            Ntziv, HaEmek Davar, Shemot 6:12 and 6:30 expands upon this theme. To effectively communicate, the concern can only partially be the actual ability to communicate. One must also be concerned with the openness of the listener to the communication. There is the obvious desire to convince the listener of the correctness of the ideas being expressed; there is the obvious desire that the listener accepts the words and ideas being communicated. Yet before one can accomplish this goal, one has to first ensure that the listener will even listen to these words. This is Moshe’s concern with Pharaoh. Will Pharaoh even listen to Moshe or will Pharaoh deem it below his dignity even to bother to listen to Moshe let alone be convinced by his words? These are all Moshe’s concerns. One must be concerned with how one speaks, with the simple articulation of his words. This is a physical concern easily dismissed by God. One must also be concerned with how one will express his/her ideas to the listener so that the listener will follow the argument and hopefully adopt the view of the speaker. One must also be concerned about the image he/she presents so that the listener will even pay attention to the words. For these latter two concerns, the answer is not so simple and so God’s response is actually somewhat cryptic.4 As long as Hashem allows Pharaoh his free choice, God cannot guarantee that these concerns of Moshe will be met.

Concern for speech, thus, is not only a concern regarding the ability of the self. It includes a further concern about the other, the listener. Moshe’s perception that he is limited in his ability to speak is, thus, not solely a concern regarding himself. It is an extended concern regarding how he is seen by the other. To be able to talk demands, to some extent, concern that one is heard. Sefat Emet, Va’era 659 understands this concern to be the very meaning of aral sephatayim. In explaining the flow of the words in Shemot 6:12, he states that it is not because Moshe is aral sephatayim that he will not be heard but, rather, it is because he will not be heard that he is aral sephatayim. Sefat Emet writes this specifically in regard to prophecy. Communication, even with the Divine, must consider the speaker and the listener. A weakness in the communication may, thus, emerge from either – but the result is the same. A problem in communication may be a problem with my ability to speak but it may also be a problem with the listener’s ability to listen. One must be concerned about both. As such, to speak, to communicate, one must be concerned about how to effectively create a desire in the other to listen.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


(1)  See, also, Ibn Ezra and Rabbeinu Chananel which refer to the reference to both tongue and mouth as reflecting Moshe’s physical weakness in enunciating letters whose sounds are formed by the lips/teeth or the tongue.
Ramban raises the question of why God did not just simply cure Moshe of these defects. He concludes that God did not wish to do so because Moshe’s physical problem was a result of a miracle and so Hashem wished to maintain it. Rabbi Dr. C.B. Chavel notes that Ramban seems to be referring to Shemot Rabbah 1:31 and the famous story of how Moshe, as an infant, put hot coal in his mouth, thereby burning his tongue and permanently disabling himself..
These two verses are grouped together because the language of Moshe’s challenge is similar. In these two verses, Moshe describes himself as aral sephatayim, of uncircumcised lips. This Insight thus, ultimately, can be seen as describing the nature of these words as distinct from the words used in the first challenge. The question must still be raised as to why the double concern of this nature as expressed in these two verses. Interestingly, it should also be pointed out that in the first verse, aral sephatayim follows the concern while in the second verse, aral sephatayim precedes the statement of concern. See, further, Abarbanel.
(4) The Torah text itself does not present Hashem’s response to Moshe. It is Rashi, Shemot 6:13 that states that God, in this verse, commands Moshe and Aharon to go before Pharaoh in response to Moshe’s declaration that he is aral sephatayim. In response to Moshe’s self-description, Aharon will join Moshe, in the mission before Pharaoh, as Moshe’s spokesperson.

(c) Nishma, 2007.

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