The Impediment to Moshe’s Speech

This is my take on Moshe’s speech “impediment” based on “hekesh” (comparison of verses): In Parshat Shmoth (4.10) Moshe describes himself to Hashem as, literally “not a man of words.” The word “d’varim” is related to prophetic speech, concerning the Commandments of HaShem, not ordinary (amar) speech which explains the prophetic words of HaShem. The former, devar is precise, direct “guarded” speech; whereas the latter “amar” are the details of the “direct” speech.

Here, Moshe’s speech was limited to prophetic words and deeds. That is, his prophesy was “hard to be understood” by the audience – as in Proverbs 1.6 “dark sayings” – “To understand a proverb, and a figure; The words of the wise, and their dark sayings.”

“I speak with him face to face, clearly and not in riddles;….” B’midbar 12.8

“I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will express my riddle with the harp:….” Tehillim 49.4

“I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden from the beginning, …. 78.2

For instance, in 6:12 we read that Moshe said to HaShem, “Behold, the children of Israel did not hearken to me. How then will Pharaoh hearken to me, seeing that I am of closed lips?” Here, Moshe describes himself to Hashem as “עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם”, “aral s’pha’tha’im” close-to-literally “uncircumcised of lips” (Rashi: “sealed-up of lips”).

How are we to understand 6.12 (“Behold, the children of Israel did not hearken to me.”) in light of 4.31: “And the people believed, and they heard that the L-RD had remembered the children of Israel and that He saw their affliction, and they kneeled and prostrated themselves.” ? It might be said that they did not believe Moshe until they heard Aharon explain (interpret) HaShem words which Moshe was trying to convey to them. The command to Moshe was to assemble the Elders of Israel that they all go before Pharaoh so that they, as a collective, might convey to Pharaoh that “the G-D of the Hebrews happened to meet us.” The impediment to understanding Moshe’s words was in the hearing of his guarded speech not in the in-ability or incapacity to convey his words!

In fact, strength for the argument that debeer / devar is specifically related to the mitzvoth comes from the passuk, (6.13)

“So the L-RD spoke (“devar”) to Moses and to Aaron, and He commanded them concerning the children of Israel and concerning Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, to let the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.”

Because Moshe needed an interpreter (his brother Ahron) we can easily derive that he had a barrier to being understood. (7.1):

“The Lord said to Moses, “See! I have made you a lord over Pharaoh, and Aaron, your brother, will be your speaker (נְבִיאֶֽךָ “prophet”).”

If his speech was limited to prophetic speech, this would explain the Targum.

Indeed, the first-century C.E. Aramaic translation of the Bible known as Targum Onkelos, which preserves some of the oldest rabbinic interpretations to have come down to us, characterizes Moses’ speech as profound, rendering k’vad peh as yakir mamlal, “weighty of speech,” and k’vad lashon as amik lishan, “deep of tongue,” turning Moses’ negative self-description into a positive one.

Thus, we might read Moshe’s protest as, “I am not a man of [prophetic] words.”

In another instance, if Moshe were speaking specifically to the Children of Yisrael, the passuk would read, “Va’Yomer HaShem eel Moshe Laymor, dabayr…. B’midbar 15.37

The Midrash (Deut. Rabba 42, Tanchuma Tzav) says the difference between the two is mainly a difference of tone. It considers DABER a harsh way of speaking and AMAR as being softer. Others say that DABER is used for elaborate or detailed explanations which AMAR is more direct and to the point. Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (Aderet Eliyahu) suggests that DABER is used for commandments that are spelled out in the written Torah whereas AMAR is used for those commandments found in the oral Torah. There is a sense that DABER suggests that there is a distance between the speakers and AMAR communicates closeness and intimacy. Perhaps G-D feels closer to his priests then to the man on the street.

The Ten Commandments are called עשרת הדברות – [Aseret HaDibrot] – the 10 utterances, which derives from the word DABER. They are short, concise and to the point.

In finding other support for my position that daber / devar is related to prophetic speech and the mitzvoth, I offer Jeremiah 1.4, 6 and 7 (And the word [daber] of the L-RD came unto me, saying;” “Then said I: ‘Ah, L-RD G-D! behold, I cannot speak [daber]; for I am a child.'” “But the L-RD said unto me: say not: I am a child; for to whomsoever I shall send thee thou shalt go, and whatsoever I shall command thee thou shalt speak [te’daber].” )

The Midrash relates that, when Moshe was a child in Pharoah’s court, he continued to reach for the crown and was put to a test. When he reached for the crown during the test, an Angel directed his hand to grasp a coal and he put the coal in his mouth scorching his tounge. This saved his life but resulted in his speech impediment [which Rashi relates as stuttering].

Moshe needed to be understood. It was his brother Aharon who conveyed HaShem’s words to the people who then believed Moshe’s speech: “And Aaron spoke all the words that the L-RD had spoken to Moses, and he performed the signs before the eyes of the people. And the people believed, and they heard that the L-RD had remembered the children of Israel and that He saw their affliction, and they kneeled and prostrated themselves.”

In fact we read in Devarim 32.1-3 that by the end of his life Moshe limited his words to prophetic song: “Give ear, ye heavens, and I will speak; and let the earth hear the words of my mouth. My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew; as the small rain upon the tender grass, and as the showers upon the herb. For [when] I will proclaim the Name of the L-RD; ascribe ye greatness unto our G-D.”

45 And when Moses made an end of speaking all these words to all Israel, 46 he said unto them: ‘Set your heart unto all the words wherewith I testify against you this day; that ye may charge your children therewith to observe to do all the words of this law, 47 For it is no vain thing [prophesy] for you; because it [this song] is your life, and through this thing [prophetic word/song] ye shall prolong your days upon the land, whither ye go over the Jordan to possess it.’ {P}

One thought on “The Impediment to Moshe’s Speech

  1. Here’s a couple passukim (verses) in support of my proposition that the audience to Moshe’s speech was hard of hearing (understanding) “but the L-RD hath not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this the day.” Devarim 29.4 (“unto this the day” עַד, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה is in the past tense, as in, until that point in time). And what about Isaiah 6.9-13 And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not… 10 Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they, seeing with their eyes, and hearing with their ears, and understanding with their heart, return, and be healed.’ 11 Then said I: ‘L-RD, how long?’ And He answered: ‘Until cities be waste without inhabitant, and houses without man, and the land become utterly waste, 12 And the L-RD have removed men far away, and the forsaken places be many in the midst of the land. 13 And if there be yet a tenth in it, it shall again be eaten up; as a terebinth, and as an oak, whose stock remaineth, when they cast their leaves, so the holy seed shall be the stock thereof.’ {P}


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