You’ve probably heard of the survey taken a few years back which explored the deepest fears held by Americans. The No. 1 fear, it turns out, is of public speaking. I know all about this crippling fear. All through my school years, I was petrified of standing up in front of the class to give an oral report. I was a walking catalog of symptoms: dry mouth, wet palms, pounding heart.
I suppose the rabbinate was an interesting career choice for someone with this particular brand of mishugas. But I’m in good company. Moshe Rabbeinu, the first rabbi of all, had the same problem. “How can you expect Pharaoh to listen to me?” Moses asks God in this week’s parashah. “My own people — the Israelites — wouldn’t even listen to me. They paid no attention to my words.”
He concludes: “I am a man of uncircumcised lips.” The connotation is of some kind of blockage that interferes with free and easy discourse.
Three times in the Torah we hear about Moses’ speech difficulties. In last week’s portion he called himself “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue,” saying, “I am not a man of words.”
Our sages are not sure what to make of this description. Was Moses just being modest? Was he insecure and lacking in self-esteem? Was he looking for an excuse to avoid being drafted into God’s service? Did he mean, as Ibn Ezra suggests, that his Egyptian wasn’t so good anymore — that he was a little weak on those irregular verbs?
Was Moses painfully shy and tongue-tied, maybe due to some psychological problem? Was he simply the strong, silent type, slow to articulate his thoughts aloud? Or could it be, as Rashi and others say, that Moses actually had a speech defect — a stutter, perhaps, or a lisp?
Some years back I was invited to visit the DreamWorks Studio in Burbank to preview an animated film on the life of Moses, titled “The Prince of Egypt.” The film had an all-star cast, with a celebrity voice for every character in the story. I noticed that the voice of Moses was Val Kilmer — a virile, hairy-chested sort of voice, with not a trace of a stammer, and God forbid, nothing close to a lisp.
During the focus group discussion following the film, I asked, “What happened to Moses’ speech impediment?” The producer explained that they had removed it for dramatic effect. “If we had to make Moses say everything to Aaron and then have Aaron repeat it, it really slows down the story,” he said. “And besides, we thought it detracted from the portrayal of Moses as a strong, heroic figure.”
And so I had to ask myself: Is it essential to the character of Moses that he be a man of impeded speech, slow and fumbling in his words, or is it just a cosmetic detail, easily discarded from the story?
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said: “Moses was endowed with all the qualities of a prophet except one: He lacked the power of eloquent speech. This was a deliberate act of Divine Providence, so that people would not say that the Israelites followed Moses because of his eloquence alone.”
Rabbi Nachman teaches that, for whatever reason — physical or psychological — Moses couldn’t speak easily or fluently. And God wanted it that way. God didn’t want the people to be swayed by a silver-tongued orator — the star of the debate team, a glib and charismatic TV evangelist type.
God didn’t want to entrust the divine message to someone who gave spellbinding oral reports with no sweat. God was interested in someone who needed his brother’s help, who spoke hesitantly and thoughtfully, who stumbled a bit, and sometimes got tied up in knots of self-doubt because he felt so much the weight of what he was saying.
A blemished vessel was just fine with God. An elderly shepherd with a tender, impetuous heart — a man of the desert, halting in his speech, a little awkward in his style — a person like that was no problem for God. A person like that could be a leader. Not because of his captivating rhetoric. But because he spoke the truth with all his heart.
God’s message came forth from him, shining pure and unadorned — and, in the end, the people felt its power.
Rabbi Janet Marder is the spiritual leader at Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.