וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה לֵאמֹר הֵן בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא־שָֽׁמְעוּ אֵלַי וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה וַֽאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָֽיִם
Vay’daber Moshe lifnei YHVH leimor: “Hen B’nei Yisrael lo sham’u eilai v’eich yishm’eini Phar’oh, va’ani aral sfatayim!”
And Moses spoke to YHVH, saying: “Look, the Children of Israel would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh listen to me — me, a man of impeded speech!” (Exodus 6:12).
Moses, the reluctant prophet, has returned to his home in Egypt with a seemingly impossible mission. Raised as a prince in Pharaoh’s palace, he had run away many years before and become a shepherd in Midian. In a life-changing encounter in the wilderness, Moses has a vision of a burning bush and hears a call from the very heart of existence: “I am YHVH, Life Unfolding, Being Itself. I have seen the suffering of the slaves in Egypt, and I know their pain. This is not the purpose for which I created human beings. I will be with you. Go to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go!” 1
Moses demurs, thinking of every possible reason that would disqualify him from this mission, but there is no turning back. Moses makes his way to the royal palace and informs Pharaoh that YHVH, the Source of all Being, insists that Pharaoh let the people go. Pharaoh famously replies, “Who is YHVH that I should listen to that voice and let Israel go? I do not know YHVH, nor will I let Israel go” (Exodus 5:2).
In response to this threat, Pharaoh doubles the labors of the slaves, and adds both backbreaking and morale-breaking measures to their daily toil.
As we enter this week’s portion, YHVH again gives Moses a message of great hope and charges Moses to relay this message to the slaves:
I am YHVH, Life Unfolding … I will rescue you from bondage, and deliver you with an outstretched arm … and I will be your God, and you will know that it is I, YHVH, Life
Unfolding, that liberates you from the burdens of Egypt. And I will bring you to the land I promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as your inheritance. I am YHVH! (Exodus 6:6–8)
But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they could not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage (Exodus 6:9).
Neither Pharaoh nor the Israelites accept Moses’ message. In fact, things have gotten worse since Moses showed up. YHVH then instructs Moses to once again speak to Pharaoh. Moses is beside himself, and says, “Look here, the Children of Israel would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh listen to me — me, a man of impeded speech!” (Exodus 6:12).
Our story has reached an impasse. Moses carries a message of liberation and hope. Pharaoh will not, perhaps cannot listen — why should he when he is the beneficiary of the status quo? The slaves will not, perhaps cannot listen; they are קֹצֶר רוּחַ kotzer ruakh, which can either mean “short of breath” or “of crushed spirit.” Moses is stymied. No one seems capable of hearing his message.
The Hebrew describes Moses as עֲרַל שְׂפָתָֽיִם aral sfatayim. In the case of circumcision, arel means “foreskin.” Here, it means that Moses has a foreskin — that is, a sheath over his lips. He is unable to speak. We know from earlier in the narrative that Moses claims to be “slow of speech,” but the Torah is trying to say something much more profound than that Moses suffers from a stutter.
The Hasidic master the Sefat Emet guides us into a deeper explanation for Moses’ “speech impediment.” The Sefat Emet reads Moses’ complaint to God as “because neither Pharaoh nor the Children of Israel will listen, therefore I am unable to speak.” In other words, it is not the speaker who offers speech; it is the listener who elicits speech. All of us have had this experience and know it to be true. I am sure you can think of a time when you sensed someone’s genuine interest in hearing what you had to say, and you found yourself talking much more than you expected to. I’m sure you can think of a time when you turned your loving ear to someone that you cared deeply about and “drew her out of her shell.”
Moses can no longer speak because he does not believe his words will make a difference. How does the prophet, the idealist, the messenger of hope and possibility in the midst of misery and despair continue when his or her message appears to fall on deaf ears? How do any of us remember that we have something of value to communicate when it seems that no one cares? At this nadir of hope, where will Moses find the strength to continue to speak?
The answer can be found back in Moses’ encounter with YHVH at the burning bush: Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt? And God said, “אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ Ehyeh imakh — I will be with you” (Exodus 3:11–12).
What kind of answer is this? Moses is looking for reassurance that he is the man for the job. God’s response is simply to say, “I will be with you,” as if to say, “Moses, when you feel most hopeless and alone, you are not alone. Know that I am with you.”
In response to Moses’ doubts, God does not promise certainty. God promises company. Moses will overcome his despair and once more find his voice because he remembers that he is not alone.
Psalm 23 declares, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.” I take this verse to heart whenever I find myself accompanying someone on a journey of grief or despair. I cannot walk that lonesome valley for you, but I can keep you company along the way. Perhaps my presence can remind you of a greater Presence that is also urging you forward. When you feel most alone, I will be with you.
At the end of every synagogue service, we sing the 11th-century hymn Adon Olam. I sang it countless times growing up, but never stopped to consider its meaning, other than that it meant the service was finally over. But now I know why we walk out of the synagogue with that song on our lips, for it closes with this couplet: “Into your hands I entrust my spirit, while I sleep and when I wake, and as long as my breath is in my body, God is with me, and I will not fear.”
The Divine promise to Moses is also given to us.
By fortunate happenstance, the weekly portions that tell of the exodus from Egypt fall in January and coincide with the national commemoration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. In my congregation, we always make the connection between our ancient story of liberation from bondage with the modern struggle for African-American liberation, and Dr. King’s transformational leadership in that effort. In that spirit, I want to quote Dr. King as he described a harrowing moment when he, like Moses in our narrative, felt most alone and was considering giving up his struggle. Sitting at his kitchen table with his head in his hands, King writes:
At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine … I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.
In our darkest moments, may we all sense the presence of the power of life accompanying us, supporting us and reminding us that we are not alone.
1 Here, I have condensed the lengthy dialogue between YHVH and Moses in Exodus, Chapter 3.