This past Monday marked Martin Luther King Jr. Day – honoring a courageous leader whose passionate sacrifice and prophetic speeches shaped an Exodus from the bondage of racism, offering dignity and freedom to an entire nation. Imagine a leader of such proportions and scope – with a heavy speech impediment? What if he or she has a stutter or an inability to make a coherent sentence? Oh well, yes, there is that man in the White House, but we mean real leaders, prophetic change agents whose deeds and words motivate revolutions. How much of their power is derived form oratory ability?
Moses, the hero of the original Exodus, is famously known for just such a challenge. In this week’s Torah Episode, Va’Era, he continues to struggle against the mission that has been given to him at the burning bush – to free his people. In the second round of negotiations with the invisible Deity, Moses resists the role by claiming that his lips are, literally, sealed – covered by a foreskin. He is speaking figuratively, of course, but what can this mean? That his lips that have not been denatured through a covenantal act, have not been dedicated to Divine service? That they have not been stripped of the covering of Egyptian, the language of his upbringing? Translators have wrestled with this disclaimer in numerous ways:
Exodus 6:12, according to the King James Bible:
And Moses spake before the LORD, saying, Behold, the children of Israel have not hearkened unto me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?
Other translations replace ‘uncircumcised lips’ with Impeded speech (Etz Chayim), difficult of speech (Pseudo Jonathan) or Sealed lips (Artscroll), creatively addressing the words AREL S’FTAIM as metaphor for what is otherwise a really peculiar physical condition. The word AREL is usually read as ‘uncircumcised, derived from the primitive root: ‘to strip’ or ‘to expose’.
So what’s going on, Moses? Are you uncut and unsuitable or just not cut for the job? Does your reluctance to be recruited for this campaign express itself in a stammering stage fright? Did you press a burning coal to your lips as an infant, as legends tell, so that you are forever marked and scarred? Did your infancy as a hidden child traumatize you, the maternal finger ever pressed over your lips to keep you quiet? Perhaps all of the above. And the best we can do as translators is to offer our own: tongue-tied, speechless, Moses refuses the nomination and prefers to stay where it’s familiar, back with the sheep.
Perhaps his progress shows us how personal limitations — real or perceived— can be made into advantages, transforming self and society in surprising and inspiring ways. Perhaps, too, his story reminds us of how important it is to have leaders who know their own weakness and find partners who can help them lead. After all, Moses’ protests convince the Almighty to add a speechwriter and official spokesman to the Exodus Campaign: Aaron, the original translator or Divine Word. What next? Join the reluctant hero and his sidekick for the fight to freedom… frogs and all.
When do you, like Moses, get so tongue tied, so that the words don’t come? And what can change that?