Barriers and Abilities: Commentary on Parashat Va’era 5783
By Rabbi Dena Bodian, Hebrew Seminary alum, ordained 2010; College Chaplain and Campus Rabbi at Wellesley College

When I was growing up, a popular children’s Haggadah featured a skit to be acted out at the seder table. In the skit, Moses is depicted as having a lisp, which was clearly intended to be a comedic moment. While I sincerely hope that the past 40-something years have seen a great deal of improvement in the ways in which we as a society think about ability—and that we recognize how offensive and unholy it is to mock someone for a speech impediment—I want to think about the relationship of ability (or perception thereof) to this week’s parashah.

In Va’era, we see Moses’ second attempt to convince God that he isn’t leadership material. Moses had already claimed in last week’s torah reading that a speaking disability—that he is “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשוֹן, khevad peh ukhvad lashon) (Exodus 4:10)—prevents him from being able to convince Pharaoh to release the Israelites for a brief worship excursion. This week, Moses again tries to invoke his disability—that he is aral sefatayim (עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם) (Exodus 6:12)—usually understood by commentators and translators as to imply that Moses was somehow either ‘tongue-tied’ or prone to stuttering.

The literal translation of this phrase, however, is “foreskinned lips.” Male biology has already played a major part in Moses’ life; it is his very maleness that caused his mother to hide him rather than throw him in the Nile with the rest of the Israelite baby boys (Exodus 1:16–2:3). When Moses’ life is in danger again when he is an adult, his wife Tzipporah circumcises their son in an act she twice alludes to by referencing “a bridegroom of blood” (חֲתַן דָּמִים, chatan damim) (Exodus 4:25–4:26). It is only natural then that Moses understands his very biology as sufficient reason to remain silent. God, on the other hand, seems to suggest that our disabilities might be our own perception of our abilities:

:וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֵלָיו מִי שָׂם פֶּה לָאָדָם אוֹ מִי־יָשׂוּם אִלֵּם אוֹ חֵרֵשׁ אוֹ פִקֵּחַ אוֹ עִוֵּר הֲלֹא אָנֹכִי יְהֹוָה

And Adonai said to him, “Who gives humans speech? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, Adonai?” (Exodus 4:11.)

On his commentary to the term in Exodus 6:12, Rashi, on the other hand, compares Moses’ being aral sefatayim to “those with foreskinned ears” (עֲרֵלָה אָזְנָם, arelah oznam) as referenced centuries later by the prophet Jeremiah. Orating in God’s voice, Jeremiah presents a God who asks rhetorically:

:עַל־מִי אֲדַבְּרָה וְאָעִֶידָהֶ וְיִשְׁמָעוּ הִנֵּהֶ עֲרֵלָה אזְנָם וְלֹא יוּכְלוּ לְהַקְשִׁיב הִנֵּה דְבַר־יְהֹוְָה הָיָה לָהֶם לְחֶרְפָּה לֹא יַחְפְּצוּ־בוֹ

To whom shall I speak,

Give warning that they may hear?

Their ears are blocked

And they cannot listen.

See, the word of the LORD has become for them

An object of scorn; they will have none of it.* (Jeremiah 6:10.)


Like the literal foreskin, whose removal is understood to be a sign of our spiritual covenantal relationship with God, Rashi suggests that “foreskinned ears” are also a spiritual disability. Someone who refuses to pay attention, who ignores the needs of those around him and steamrolls his way through life, may be seen as bearing “foreskinned ears.”

The opposite is true of those who use sign languages, which require close eye contact and the ability to read and interpret both facial expressions and body language.  If we understand the state of being aral sefatayim as a spiritual impediment, the term expresses Moses’ hesitancy to assume leadership, his unwillingness to be God’s spokesperson. How can the man raised in the palace among the Egyptian elite possibly be accepted by the Israelites?

In her contemporary commentary on the children’s Haggadah skit mentioned above, Chelsea Rothschild suggests that we

breathe for a moment and meditate on the “impediments” in our lives: on the … handicaps with which we find ourselves “stuck;” on excuses we continue to make. Can you find a way to laugh at your own “impediments” as easily as you could laugh during this dramatization?

Rothschild’s commentary simultaneously points out both the inappropriateness of the skit itself while prompting the reader to consider in what ways we each may be spiritually arel (עָרֵל, “foreskinned”)—weighed down by a spiritual barrier we must overcome.

*English translation from the New Jewish Publication Society translation of the TaNaKh.