Holy Moses, as a Figure of Speech: Commentary on Parashat Va’era 5784

By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President & Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary


Last year, I had the pleasure of conversing with a young Deaf Jew who shared with me that they had always understood Moses as a Deaf person. Of course, all of the quotes that the Torah ascribes to Moses could be written Hebrew translations of what Moses may have signed, or perhaps Moses may have been Deaf but still oral. The evidence was in the text of course.

When Moses stated, “לֹא֩ אִ֨ישׁ דְּבָרִ֜ים אָנֹ֗כִי” (lo ish devarim anokhi, “I am not a man of words”) (Exodus 4:10), was he identifying himself as a lip-reading individual who worked hard to understand spoken words in the hearing culture surrounding him? The eventual-leader of the Israelites would in fact go on to ascribe to himself several other descriptors that, though poetic in their elusive meanings, connote difficulty in speech. Expressing his concern about being a spokesperson, Moses worried about being “כְבַד־פֶּ֛ה וּכְבַ֥ד לָשׁ֖וֹן” (khevad peh ukhvad lashon, “of heavy mouth and of heavy tongue”) (Exodus 4:10). Moses even went as far as asking God whether his own words would even be heard by Pharaoh: “אֲנִי֙ עֲרַ֣ל שְׂפָתַ֔יִם וְאֵ֕יךְ יִשְׁמַ֥ע אֵלַ֖י פַּרְעֹֽה” (“I am of uncircumcised lips, so how could Pharaoh hear me?”) (Exodus 6:30).

Centuries later, the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 12b recorded Rabbi Yehudah, reading with great curiosity the words “וְהִנֵּה־נַ֖עַר בֹּכֶ֑ה” (“behold, there was a crying young man”), which appear in Exodus 2:6, referencing baby Moses. Rabbi Yehudah, figuring that several years separate babies and young men, figured that there was something surprising about the timbre of Moses’ voice: “הוא ילד וקולו כנער” (“that [person Moses] had been a boy, but his voice was like [that of a] young man”). This interpretation of Exodus 2:6 was too much for Rabbi Nechemyah to handle. Instead, Rabbi Nechemyah tried to place guilt on Rabbi Yehudah by accusing him, “עשיתו למשה רבינו בעל מום” (“You have turned our master Moses into a blemished person!”). Denying any depiction of Moses as in some manner disabled or atypical, Rabbi Nechemyah suggested that Rabbi Yehudah had read the text incorrectly. Perhaps even more fancifully, Rabbi Nechemyah imagined that baby Moses was described as a “נַ֖עַר” (na’ar, “young man”) because Moses’ mother had placed materials for a wedding canopy in Moses’ baby basket (just in case she couldn’t help with future wedding plans). In failing to address Rabbi Yehudah’s assertion that Moses’ voice differed from those of his peers though, Rabbi Nechemyah’s teaching leaves room today for us to suspect that Rabbi Yehudah may have been right.

Because something about Moses’ communication was prone to being received with some misunderstanding, God needed an intervention that could bring out Moses’ fullest potential as a leader. When the Torah introduces Moses’ brother Aaron for the first time, the debut appears exactly in the context of Moses’ and God’s dialoguing about the speech difficulties Moses experienced. When God’s words first bring Aaron to the consciousness of the reader of the Torah, God tries to reassure Moses that Aaron will be an advocate:


יד הֲלֹ֨א אַהֲרֹ֤ן אָחִ֙יךָ֙ הַלֵּוִ֔י יָדַ֕עְתִּי כִּֽי־דַבֵּ֥ר יְדַבֵּ֖ר ה֑וּא וְגַ֤ם הִנֵּה־הוּא֙ יֹצֵ֣א לִקְרָאתֶ֔ךָ וְרָאֲךָ֖ וְשָׂמַ֥ח בְּלִבּֽוֹ׃ טו וְדִבַּרְתָּ֣ אֵלָ֔יו וְשַׂמְתָּ֥ אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֖ים בְּפִ֑יו וְאָנֹכִ֗י אֶֽהְיֶ֤ה עִם־פִּ֙יךָ֙ וְעִם־פִּ֔יהוּ וְהוֹרֵיתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּעֲשֽׂוּן׃ טז וְדִבֶּר־ה֥וּא לְךָ֖ אֶל־הָעָ֑ם וְהָ֤יָה הוּא֙ יִֽהְיֶה־לְּךָ֣ לְפֶ֔ה וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּֽהְיֶה־לּ֥וֹ לֵֽאלֹהִֽים׃

(14) Is not Aaron your brother the Levite? I know that he could speak a speech! He would go out for you. When he will see you, his heart will be joyous. (15) You will speak to him and place the words in his mouth. I will be with your mouth and with his mouth. I will teach you what you will do. (16) He will speak for you to the nation. He will be for you as a mouth. You will be for him as God.


If God was not predicting Moses and Aaron’s future leadership careers in the wilderness, then God was prescribing a chain of command: God’s word goes to Moses, Moses’ word goes to Aaron, and Aaron’s word gets out in the world. Moses would be the leader, but Aaron as translator, interpreter, funnel, and filter, would be the face, the voice, the persona, and the manifestation of the word of God.

Or so was the plan.

As God’s plagues against Pharaoh and his Egyptian subjects begin to kick into high gear in this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, Aaron’s quietness in the land of Egypt speaks volumes. It is true that God had told Moses that he could let Aaron do the talking. However, the first time that the Torah quotes Aaron speaking on his own was when Aaron assumed the role of lead architect in the molding of a golden calf, long after the Israelites had left Egypt, gotten stuck in the wilderness, and begun doubting the Israelite religion (Exodus 32:2).

It is true that Aaron is remembered in one instance as saying whatever it is that God had conveyed to Moses (Exodus 4:30), and the Torah records Moses and Aaron, in the land of Egypt, speaking jointly only twice (Exodus 5:1 and 10:3). However, the Torah mostly remembers Moses the orator in Egypt as speaking on his own—addressing Pharaoh directly (Exodus 8:12 and 10:9) and making declarations before the Israelite nation (Exodus 11:4 and 13:3) and their elders (Exodus 12:21).

Whatever Moses had feared was amiss about his ability to share his ideas with those around him ultimately did not matter. Perhaps Aaron was Moses’ interpreter, translating Moses’ thoughts from an ancient sign language into a spoken tongue. Maybe Aaron did such a perfect job blending into the background as an interpreter that the Torah rarely bothered to bring Aaron up—for what he said was really just what Moses was signing anyway. Perhaps Moses was oral (Deaf or not) but had an uncommon voice for the speaking public of his day. Maybe Moses just learned to work with the voice he had: to celebrate and to affirm that his voice still had power, no matter how unusual he or his voice may have been perceived.

Moses in the end could do a lot of the talking and perhaps even all of the leading. God’s act of bringing Aaron into this story when he might have not been needed at all reminds us just how frequently we can act against the odds. We have each been told at one time or another that there is something that we do not do right—and that we even err with consistency. Though we should never believe that we can live without the help of others, we must also know that we still may find ways to overcome the obstacles in front of us.

The Torah’s narrative of Moses as an emerging leader in the Land of Egypt serves to highlight for us that, all too often, the greatest obstacle in front of us is not our own disabilities or our own weaknesses, but our fear of failure. Self-doubt is the most stymying of all. When we, however, believe that we ourselves have the ability to act in Godly ways, that is when we can move forward—with the quiet assistance of our loved ones and with God at our side.



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