Overcoming Obstacles, by Rabbi Ari Rosenberg

The prophet Moses once stood up to the powerful Pharaoh, demanding, “Let my people go!”  (Exodus 7:16).  That’s the part of the story that stands out the most to us.  But my focus is on what Moses had to overcome, in order to confront the Pharaoh in such a manner.  Earlier, Moses pleads with God, “I get tongue-tied, why would the Pharaoh heed me?” (Exodus 6:30).  Moses even begged, “Please, O my Lord, I have never been good with words…I am slow of speech and I am slow of tongue (Exodus 4:10).    

These passages have led many Torah Commentators to believe that Moses had a Speech Impediment.  The 11th Century French Commentator, Rashi, stated in no uncertain terms that he believed Moses was a stutterer.  Rashi’s grandson, the Rashbam, was of the opinion that the difficulty that Moses had, was not disfluency, per se, but rather an inability to be fluent in Egyptian, considering how long he had been away from “home”.  The Rashbam’s Spanish contemporary, Abraham Ibn Ezra, however, held with Rashi, that Moses had difficulty speaking in any language. There is, in fact, an interesting theory that Moses stuttered or stammered or something of the like.  According to legend, baby Moses, growing up in the palace of the Pharaoh, often used to grab Pharaoh’s crown and place it on his own head.  Court viziers prophesized that Moses would one day grow up to usurp all of the Pharaoh’s power.  Some urged the Pharaoh to kill the young Moses, not unlike the way the Sicilian Don Ciccio attempts to kill a young Vito Corleone, in The Godfather.  According to Midrash, the Midian Priest Jethro, who would later become the father-in-law of Moses, persuades the Pharaoh to put young Moses to a test.  A piece of gold and a burning coal are held out to baby Moses, in the belief that if Moses has an understanding of his destiny, then he will “go for the gold”; and if not, “the burning ember”. As a parent, I find the test barbaric, but Pharoah goes for it and baby Moses is put to the test.  He is about to grab the gold, when the angel Gabriel intervenes, unbeknownst to anyone else, to save the life of baby Moses, by shoving his hand towards the burning coal, “so that Moses not only seized the coal, but also put the hand with the coal into his mouth, and burned his tongue.”  So the story goes, “thus Moses became slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Why all this interest in a young Moses with a speech impediment, overcoming obstacles, to exceed expectations, and reach his fullest potential?  If you had not met my son Ezra, who suffers from a speech impediment, you probably would have no idea that I once suffered from a stutter so severe, there were discussions about whether I would ever be able to chant Torah, or even read in English at my Bar Mitzvah.  In my experience, I have yet to meet anyone in the world with a speech impediment more extreme than I had as a child.  My parents remember when I would place my hands on my cheeks as though I could literally force the words out.  It was not uncommon for me to stutter upon every syllable of every word in every sentence. I remember it well.  The words would be in my head.  In fact, the following sentences and paragraphs would be there as well, bottlenecked like Friday traffic on the George Washington Bridge.  Years later, when I was an English major at Rutgers College, I wrote an essay likening my stutter to a film projector in which the image has just melted, and the tape is streaming to a point beyond which it simply cannot pass, while the other side is left flapping in an endless loop. As a young child, when it was most extreme, I learned to live with it.  I taught myself coping mechanisms to help me communicate.  I found that if I could relax myself by taking a deep breath, that could go a long way.  I learned to try to talk more slowly, or better yet, to vary the speed.  If I could convert the syntax of a sentence from active to passive, sometimes that would do the trick.  If I could come up with a different word to convey the same meaning, that could sometimes trick my body into cooperating with my brain. I once heard a story about a boy who stuttered every day of his life until one day he took a class in Spanish.  He discovered that when he translated his thoughts into Spanish, he could speak them without stuttering.  Would you believe that boy majored in Spanish when he went to college, moved to Spain, and never stuttered another day in his life!  That could have been me, only I was terrible in Spanish.  However, I did find that I stuttered less in Hebrew. As a child, I loved Hebrew School.  In public school, I was short.  In Hebrew School, I was tall.  In public school, I might be picked last for kick ball.  In Hebrew school, they considered me an athlete.  In public school, I was an awkward ethnic looking kid with curly hair.  In Hebrew School, I was a good looking Jew. In public school, I could barely get a word out.  In Hebrew School, I was like a Hebrew Jedi Master.  Surely, my positive experience in Hebrew School, helped me to overcome the unlikeliness that someone with such difficulty speaking would ultimately become a public speaker by profession. People often ask me how I overcame my difficulty speaking.  I had speech therapists, but the fact of the matter is that they weren’t very helpful to me at the time.  They could teach me the tools that would help me have more control over my ability to communicate.  However, the overriding issue I had was psychological.  The more anxiety I had about my speech, the less effective the tools.  I liked my therapists, and had a nice rapport with each one of them.  But every time I was pulled out of the classroom to see them I felt more alienated and isolated from my peers, increasing my anxiety, and exacerbating my disfluency. In all honesty, I lost my stutter, when I became comfortable in my own skin, confident that I too must serve a purpose in this world, and comforted by the fact that all people are created in the image of God, and so certainly there couldn’t be anything inherently wrong with me.  In fact, I was just fine.  Chanting Torah on my Bar Mitzvah didn’t take quite the same courage it took Moses to proclaim “Let my people go!” to the Pharaoh, and to the world.  However, my Bar Mitzvah was a remarkable achievement for someone like me, and it played no small part in helping me become who I am today.   I was inspired to write this for a sermon I delivered this past week after reading the donthideitflauntit.com blog of Meg Zucker, who defines herself as a wife, mother to three children, lawyer, and woman who happened to be born with ectrodactyly. Although Meg may have seemingly had the misfortune of being born with only one finger on each hand, and only one toe on each foot, she was endowed with the good fortune of a perfectly healthy heart, the warmth of a kind soul, and the positive can-do entrepreneurial spirit of success.  In reflecting on her life, Meg says “My life’s blessing is the following:  I have a distinctive insight into how each and every one of us (and our children) have traits that make us unique and different.”  She notes that some of us must wear our differences on our sleeves, while others can try to bury them. Moses could not bury his differences.  He would have been considered a Hebrew in the eyes of the Egyptians, an Egyptian in the eyes of the Hebrews, and perhaps an outcast in the eyes of some who lacked the discernment to overlook his speech challenges.  However, we must admire Moses, for overcoming all of those challenges, for having confidence in his purpose in this world, and for rising above ignorance and injustice, to reach his fullest potential as an individual, and to lead our ancestors to freedom.  Today, hardly anyone remembers Moses for his speech impediment.  He is defined, instead by his accomplishments.  So may we be inclusive and compassionate in the way we view others, and so may we rise above the obstacles we face, to find our own inner purpose, and our hidden voice.

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