“Moses the Stammerer, Becomes a World-Class Orator”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

With parashat Devarim, we begin to read the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Torah. The book of Deuteronomy records the bold words of Moses, including not a few words of stinging rebuke directed at the People of Israel.

When we encounter Moses early in his “career” at the scene of the Burning Bush, we find a former prince of Egypt who has no desire to be a leader. So great is Moses’ reluctance to assume the responsibility of leading Israel, that he refuses to accept the task even when G-d informs Moses, in Exodus 3:16, that he has the unique opportunity to free the people from slavery in Egypt and bring them to the Promised Land of Israel. G-d says to Moses (Exodus 3:16), ”Go and gather the elders of Israel and tell them that G-d has remembered them, and that He is taking them up from the affliction of Egypt, and bringing them to the land flowing with milk and honey.”

Even when G-d specifically tells Moses in Exodus 3:18 that his mission will succeed, and that, וְשָׁמְעוּ לְקֹלֶךָ, “they will listen to you,” Moses, seemingly contradicts G-d (See Shemot 5769-2009), and responds, Exodus 4:1, , וְהֵן לֹא יַאֲמִינוּ לִי, וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִיThey will not believe me and they will not listen to my voice!”

In order to instill confidence in Moses and win over the skeptics, G-d provides Moses with several wondrous signs: (Exodus 7:8-18) His staff turns into a serpent; Moses’ hand becomes leprous; and G-d shows Moses how to turn water into blood.

Moses continues to argue that he is absolutely unfit to lead. In Exodus 4:10, Moses plaintively cries, לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי גַּם מִתְּמוֹל גַּם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁם, גַּם מֵאָז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל עַבְדֶּךָ.  כִּי כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן אָנֹכִי , “Please, my L-rd, I am not a man of words, not since yesterday, nor since the day before yesterday, nor since You first spoke to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech.” G-d then responds, Exodus 4:11-12, “Who makes a mouth for man, or who makes one dumb or deaf, or sighted or blind? Is it not I, the L-rd? So now, go, and I will be with your mouth, and teach you what you should say.”

After all this, Moses has the audacity to say to the Al-mighty, as reported in Exodus 4:13, “Please my L-rd, send through whomever You will send,” in effect, saying to G-d, “Send anyone You’d like, just not me!”

G-d is angry and instructs Moses to speak to his brother, Aaron and put the words of G-d into Aaron’s mouth. G-d assures Moses that He will be with his [Moses’] mouth and with Aaron’s mouth. He [Aaron] will speak to the people for you. He will be your mouth and you will be his leader.

The rest is history!

The ArtScroll commentary quotes the Vilna Gaon, who comments on the differences in the spoken words of Moses:

“[The words spoken to Moses in] the first four books [of the Torah] are [words that came] directly from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, [spoken] through the throat of Moses. Not so is Deuteronomy. Israel heard the words of the book [of Deuteronomy] the same way that they heard the words of the prophets that came after Moses. The Holy One, blessed be He, would speak to the prophet today and on a later day he [the prophet] would go and make the vision known to Israel. Accordingly, at the time the prophet spoke to the people, the word of G-d had already been removed from him. So, too, the book of Deuteronomy was heard from the mouth of Moses himself.”

Throughout the Torah we find the constant refrain, וַיְדַבֵּר השׁם אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר, “the L-rd spoke to Moses, saying.” Whenever G-d spoke to Moses, Moses simply repeated the words that G-d, in effect, had dictated to him. However, only in the book of Deuteronomy, does Moses say nine times, וַיֹּאמֶר השׁם אֵלַי, “The L-rd spoke to me.” (See Deuteronomy 1:42, 2:9, 3:2). Like the many prophets in later Jewish history whose messages were conveyed in their own words, the words spoken by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy, were composed by Moses himself and delivered to the people.

To explain Moses’ newfound ability, the rabbis of the Midrash (Devarim Rabba 1) quote the Al-mighty saying, “Look how precious is the language of the Torah, for it heals the tongue. As stated in Proverbs 3:18, עֵץ חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ, “The Torah is a tree of life to those who hold onto it.”

Rabbi Levi asks: Why do we need to go to the book of Proverbs for proof, we can learn directly from the Torah? After all, until Moses merited to receive the Torah, Moses says about himself that he is not a man of the spoken word. However, once he received the Torah, his tongue was healed and began to speak. As the Torah says in parashat Devarim, (Deuteronomy 1:1) אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה, these are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel.

All the words that Moses, the stammerer and stutterer, spoke to Israel, which are recorded in the Torah before the book of Deuteronomy, were spoken haltingly by Moses. This was so, for it was preferable that no one suspect that the words were accepted by the people only because they were spoken by a great orator who had made up these words himself. However, now that Moses is conveying his own message to the people, and not G-d’s, his tongue was healed, so that his words would directly penetrate the hearts of those he was addressing.

Not only does Torah heal, Torah inspires. Those who teach Torah know that the give-and-take between teacher and student often clarifies the Torah’s message, revealing hidden secrets that normal reading or perusing may obscure. Learning Torah and teaching Torah transforms one from being merely a receptacle of Torah, into a font of wisdom that is capable of inspiring others.

And so it was with Moses, the man who stuttered and stammered, and who could barely open his mouth, became an inspirer, a golden-throated preacher, a teacher and orator.

My father, of blessed memory, Moshe Aharon Buchwald, had a wicked sense of humor. He would often wonder out loud how some of his quiet, meek acquaintances from his Shtetl in Poland, were suddenly transformed into extremely verbal and outgoing personalities upon arriving to the shores of America, becoming big “machers.” Tongue-in-cheek, my father would point to Moses, who was a stutterer and a stammerer in Egypt. Yet, when he crossed the sea, אָז יָשִׁיר מֹשֶׁה, Moses became a great singer, poet and orator.

Perhaps crossing the great Atlantic Ocean was enough to transform the “Greenhorns” from Poland. But, for Moses, the source of his speaking ability was the inspiration he received from the Torah, which contains power within it to transform all those who embrace it.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month of Av, was observed on Thursday evening, August 4th and all day Friday, August 5th. It marked the beginning of the “Nine Days” a period of intense mourning leading to the fast of Tisha b’Av.

The Shabbat before Tisha b’Av is called “Shabbat Chazon” –the Sabbath on which we read the prophetic vision of Isaiah (Chapter 1) and its foreboding message of impending destruction.

The observance of the fast of Tisha b’Av marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Saturday night, August 13th and continues through Sunday night, August 14th, 2016. Although Tisha b’Av is normally observed on the 9th day of Av, since the 9th of Av, this year, falls on Shabbat, it is observed a day later, on Sunday, the 10th of Av. Have a meaningful fast.

The Shabbat after Tisha b’Av is traditionally known as “Shabbat Nachamu,” in deference to the first of a series of seven Haftarot (prophetic messages) of consolation, drawn from the book of Isaiah, and read between Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashana. נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמּי, “Nachamu, Nachamu Ami,” be comforted My nation, are the opening words of Isaiah 40.