Heavy of Mouth
But Moses said to the LORD, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am heavy of mouth (chvad peh) and heavy of tongue (chvad lashon).”
Moses spoke before Hashem, saying, “Behold, the Children of Israel have not listened to me, so how will Pharoah listen to me? And I have sealed lips (aral s’fatayim)!”
It’s interesting to note that in Moshe’s initial reluctance to assume his role as God’s messenger and leader of the people of Israel, he references his challenges in speaking not once, but twice, the second time (Exodus 6:12) being in this week’s parsha, Va’eira. While many people assume this speech impediment as being a stutter, there are a variety of rabbinic opinions as to what the disfluency was. In a great article on the subject, in the online Forward, the popularity of the explanation of Moshe as stutterer comes from the 11th century commentary Rashi, who “translates the Hebrew into medieval French, in this case using the noun balbus, stuttering or stammering (from which comes the modern French verb balbutier, to stutter), to which later glossarists added the Old German Stammeler, a stutterer.”
Our grade 4-7 students have been hard at work in the last few weeks preparing for the upcoming 29th Annual Public Speaking Contest, in which many of them will deliver their three-minute speech in front of friends, judges, teachers and family members at the Jewish Community Centre on February 1. While the speech is relatively short, the amount of time it takes to put the speech together takes hours and hours of preparation. Each year, more than 100 students take part in this great event, and for many of them, it’s an anxiety-filled affair. As we all know, fear of speaking in public is one of the top-ranked fears that people have, and for good reason. For so many, the fear is that they’ll get up on in front of everyone, and forget what to say. That their minds will go blank, and they’ll stumble and mumble and totally mess the it up. After which, all most of us really want to do it is crawl in a hole with an endless supply of Oreos or Nutella, and never come out.
And while I used to share that fear, for me, it wasn’t an unfounded fear. When I was a kid, I used to stutter – a lot. If I had to get up in front of the class to present, or answer a question, or read a quote at the request of my teacher, or even make kiddush on a Friday night, it was so often a tortuous, mortifying experience. Words would not leave my throat, for what felt like an eternity, as if there was a cork in the back of my throat, blocking anything from coming up. Or if a word came out, oftentimes, it would come out as a stammer, repeated over and over again. I remember once going to my Bar Mitzvah lessons, and I showed up a bit anxious which kicked my stuttering into overdrive. We had to call it a day and cut the lesson short, because the words were strangling in my throat. Thank God, my Bar Mitzvahs (yes, plural, but that’s another story for another time) themselves went off without incident, but there were so many other small moments, over the years, that left their mark. Which is why, when I was exactly the same age so many of our students are in grades 4 to 7, there was no way at all I could have ever participated in something like the Public Speaking Contest – it would have been a physical impossibility. I was, for all intents and purposes, heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue, like Moshe. I am beyond envious of my students who only have the garden variety fear of speaking in public.
That being said, through it all, a thought always ran through my head, which was: “Abba, if you want to do anything special in life, you’re going to have to speak in public, and you’re going to have to do it a lot. Stuttering can’t hold you back.” I guess I was one of the lucky ones, because, miraculously, my stutter receded over time, and I became more and more comfortable presenting in public and being able to add to the world with my words and thoughts. I still have moments where my disfluency rears its head, but I’m generally able to power past it. There are too many important things in life that require being out in public with people, speaking your mind, and being able to use the power of the spoken word to make a profound, meaningful difference. Teaching being one such example. Or being the Principal of a school. I never would have been able to be these things if I would not have been able to gather the strength to deal with my stutter all those years ago.
To end on a positive note, and returning to that article in the Forward, not all rabbinic sources translated the above verses to mean that Moshe stuttered, and “who denied that Moses had any speech impairment at all and who took ‘heavy of tongue’ and ‘heavy of mouth’ to indicate verbal slowness and deliberateness, so that what Moses was saying to God was that he could not talk glibly or smoothly enough to be a successful leader. Indeed, the first-century C.E. Aramaic translation of the Bible known as Targum Onkelos, which preserves some of the oldest rabbinic interpretations to have come down to us, characterizes Moses’ speech as profound, rendering k’vad peh as yakir mamlal, ‘weighty of speech,’ and k’vad lashon as amik lishan, ‘deep of tongue,’ turning Moses’ negative self-description into a positive one”.
I can think of no better wish and blessing than for our students and children to grow into the type of people who can express themselves with words that carry weight and depth of meaning, who lead by being sincere and modest, and who carry that quiet confidence that was there all along with Moshe Rabbeinu.
Shabbat Shalom u’mevorach,