Joseph Gindi, Jewish Studies Teacher

From his first encounter with G-d at the burning bush, Moshe seems to doubt his own leadership abilities, in particular in his role as a public speaker, saying he is “not a man of words”  and “slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Ex. 4:10). 

What does this mean? Why does Moshe keep insisting he has trouble speaking? While some classical commenters like Rashi (11th century France) and Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) suggest that Moshe had a speech impediment, like a stutter, as Rachel Farbiaz and others have pointed out, Moshe’s challenges with speech are only self described. At no point does the narrator or any other character describe Moshe as having any trouble with speaking. Furthermore, after his experience advocating in front of Pharoah, Moshe delivers many long speeches throughout the rest of the Chumash. Moshe can speak, and does so at length. So, it seems to me that Moshe’s protestations are mostly about his self perception and his (mis)apprehension of his own abilities.

In this week’s parasha, Parashat Vaera, we see that after Moshe is faced with even a small setback in his mission, he retreats to this narrative of ineptitude. First Moshe goes to speak with the people, but, “they would not listen… their spirits crushed by cruel bondage” (Ex. 6:9). When next commanded to demand the Israelites freedom from Pharoah, Moshe again demures. “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, me—who has obstructed lips!” (Ex. 6:12).

G-d’s response is to again assure Moshe that his brother Aharon will be by his side. But, he does so in a strange way. G-d says, “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet” (Ex. 7:2). 

Rashi is uncomfortable with the idea that Moshe would be like God. No no, he explains, this just means that Moshe will pass judgment over the Egyptians. But, what if we take this metaphor seriously? What happens if we understand Aharon not as speaking for someone who cannot speak, but as someone who actually helps him feel empowered to take action, so empowered that he feels like a God with a prophet at his disposal? 

Moshe initially takes his failure in addressing the Israelites (“they would not listen”) as indicative of all of his leadership abilities, and wants to give up on the spot. And yet, when he has just a little support from Aharon he is able to embrace his responsibility, speak truth to power and lead the Israelites to freedom.

May we all cultivate supporters like Aharon who will neither let us give up at the first sign of trouble nor simply take over and speak for us, but who will inspire each of use to seize our responsibilities and feel empowered by that image of G-d with which we are imbued.