January 23, 2020


1.24.2020 Weekly Torah Portion

I don’t know about you, but I’m not always the best communicator.  Sometimes I stumble in choosing words, sometimes I’m too indirect, and sometimes my anger gets the best of me and my message gets lost.  That last one is the most frustrating, when I feel passionately about something – and I might even be right – but my point is obscured by my anger and tone.  It’s really frustrating to know that I could’ve made my point, but I ended up getting in my own way.

In this week’s parashah, we see a man in a similar position.  Last week God approached Moshe at the burning bush and told him to free the Israelites (bnei yisrael).  When he’s approached again this week by God, Moshe says that he is a man with ערל שפתים, (oral sefatayim) which often gets interpreted as “a speech impediment,” but literally translated means “impeded speech.”

Personally, I don’t believe Moshe had a speech impediment.  I don’t think it was the original story of The King’s Speech, and that all Moshe had to do was “keep calm and carry on.”  If we look at his life, we see Moshe able to communicate at length and with great eloquence.  Instead of seeing his difficulty with speech as a stutter or other speech impediment, I think that he is literally suffering from something called “impeded speech.”

The Hebrew word ערל, does not mean “lisp” or “stutter.”  It literally means “uncircumcised.”  On the surface, it might be weird to compare the mouth of the liberator of the Jewish people to a foreskin, but it’s actually quite telling.  The word ערל refers to more than just the presence of a foreskin: later on in the Torah, the Israelites are instructed to “circumcise your uncircumcised hearts,” meaning that there is something blocking their hearts from making a connection with God.  Indeed, in Genesis, when the command for circumcision is first given, God explains that anyone who is not circumcised will be disconnected from God and the Jewish people.  In all of those cases, the lack of circumcision makes it difficult if not impossible to make a connection.

If we look at it that way, Moshe is not complaining that he has a stutter.  Rather, he is saying that the way he speaks prevents him from making a connection with other people.  Given what we know of Moshe – the fact that he has already killed an Egyptian in a fit of rage, that he later goes on to smash the tablets containing the commandments, and that he hits a rock while yelling at the people he’s supposed to be leading – we can see that Moshe has quite a temper.  I believe it is this temper that presents as his “impeded speech.”  Moshe often knows what’s right, but he cannot control the way he communicates to others to help them see the truth.

Sometimes it’s easy to communicate.  It’s easy to tell our loved ones how we feel and allow them to feel good in their connection with us.  Then there are the times when we seek to connect with them, and find ourselves feeling even farther apart.  Times we want to have the conversations that lead us to feel closer, but the way we have them leaves us feeling isolated and alone.  It’s times when we’re feeling hurt and angry that we must dig a little deeper and come to the conversation looking to connect.  It’s times like these, when emotions run high, that we have to pause and take a deep breath, realizing we’re being triggered, and remember to whom we are speaking.  Then we can make the effort to circumcise our hearts, responding in thoughtful compassion.  This allows us to remove any impediments between us and our loved ones.

We might not see God in a burning bush, but we’re going to have moments in which we’re called upon to be better than we thought.  If we lead with our circumcised heart, we’ll see our way through this desert.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Ben