You may know that Rabbi Saroken and I spent a good part of the week at the Pearlstone Center in Westminster at the annual Rabbinic Training Institute. Every January some 70 Conservative rabbis from around the country gather to study, talk, pray, eat, even drink a little bit – and of course sing karaoke. I will simply say after the Wednesday night session, if you haven’t seen a bunch of rabbis singing karaoke than you haven’t really lived!
One of the morning text classes I took was a Bible class that focused on characters in the text who struggle with disabilities. The idea behind the course was that if we can see disabilities in some of our biblical heroes than our communities and synagogues will be more open and welcoming to people in the disabled community. With close textual reading our teacher, Dr. Ora Prouser, showed us how Esau could be seen as a person struggling with ADHD. Jacob, Esau’s brother, lives most of his life with a significant limp. And perhaps most famously of all, we poured through texts describing Moses, thinking about the disability that he struggled with throughout his life, which is? Yes, his speech. Although the text is unclear as to what exactly Moses’ problem is – it has been suggested that perhaps he stuttered, or had a severe speech impediment – it is absolutely clear that Moses had trouble talking.
There are multiple occasions where Moses reminds God of his difficulty with speaking, one of them in this morning’s Torah portion. When God tells Moses to bring a message to Pharaoh, Moses responds by saying “אני ערל שפתים ואיך ישמע אלי פרעה – I am of impeded speech, how will Pharaoh hear me?!” Almost implying that his speech is unintelligible. God at first seems to pay no heed, but the truth is if you look a bit closer God seems to agree – how do we know this? God says to Moses “OK, I’ll speak to you, you speak to Aaron, your brother, and then Aaron will be the one to speak to Pharaoh and the people.” We can presume that Aaron, being Moses’ brother, can understand him, just as a parent of a child learning to speak can understand what the child is saying even thought to everyone else it sounds like gibberish.
I always knew about these passages, and the truth is most people, if you ask them, will be familiar with the idea that Moses has trouble speaking. But what I had never really thought about before was that Moses carried this struggle throughout his life. If you take out conversations that Moses has with God, which are already something different, and if you take out the book of Deuteronomy, which is also a book that is distinct in the Torah, and if you just look at the Moses in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, you’ll find a Moses who struggles to speak. There are a few short speeches here and there, but for the most part Moses speaks in short spurts, a few words at a time, and by and large seems to speak as little as possible.
You may be thinking of the movie The King’s Speech, which tells the story of King George VI. I don’t want to get into all of the palace intrigue, and the abdication of the throne by the older brother, but if you know the story you know that when King George came to the throne he had a terrible stuttering problem. The movie follows his efforts to defeat that difficulty, and with the help of a speech therapist he is ultimately able to address his people, both on the radio and in person, with moving words during some of Britain’s darkest days, helping them maintain faith and hope for a better future.
The parallels between our Torah narrative and Moses, and the story about the King are clear. Both are the leaders of their people, both have deep misgivings about whether they are suited to the roles they have been called to, and of course, both struggle with their ability to speak. But there is one distinct difference. The King overcomes his speech difficulties, but Moses never does. Imagine the pressure he felt walking in to Pharaoh’s throne room knowing how hard it would be to get his words out properly. Or the humiliation he might have felt having to whisper God’s laws into Aaron’s ear, who would then proclaim them to the people. But despite this challenge, Moses persists and, if you’ll excuse the expression, carries on. He never again brings up the fact that it is hard for him to properly speak. He goes about his business, using Aaron when he needs to, sometimes speaking for himself when there is no other recourse. Despite his difficulty with speech, he is able to lead his people to freedom.
Now I have a sense – mostly from my own work – of how difficult it can be to speak properly, even when you DON’T have a speech impediment. As a leader, your words carry real weight, and what you say makes a difference. People want to hear from you, they want to know what is on your mind, what you think about issue x,y, or z. The right words, carefully chosen and properly spoken, can inspire, soothe, heal, mend fences, and bring hope. The wrong words can have the opposite effect – they can break relationships, create mistrust, hurt people, and bring anger and divisiveness into a family, or large scale, into a country.
Judaism was always sensitive to the power of words. It is no accident that God creates the universe at the beginning of the Torah by using words. That is an illustration of the power of words to create and bring goodness into the world. But our tradition was well aware that the opposite side of the coin is also true, and that words can destroy, damage and hurt. I imagine most of us are familiar with the concept of לשון הרע, commonly translated as gossip, but literally meaning ‘evil speech.’ This concept is considered so important in Jewish thought that the Chafetz Hayim, one of the great rabbis of the 19th century, wrote an entire book about the subject that he called שמירת הלשון, the Guarding of Language.
But this morning I would like to bring to your attention another Jewish concept about proper speech, less well known than לשון הרע , a concept called לשון נקי, which literally translated would mean ‘clean language.’ It is a simple and straight forward idea – when we speak, we should strive to elevate our language, to speak to our fellow human beings – or to speak about them – in the same way we might try to speak to or about God. And that when we coarsen or cheapen our language, when we curse, or yell, when we rant and rave, we diminish others, but even more so we diminish ourselves.
That is a lesson we should all remember, in every interaction we have, whether with friends or family, whether at work or standing in line at the food store, whether we are a rabbi, an accountant, a teacher, whether Moses or the King of England, or even the President of the United States. Hateful words, especially from leaders, will build a hateful world. But clean language – לשון נקי – elevated language – will help us all to rise. God willing in the months ahead we will figure out a way to leave the hate behind, and to rise together to build a more hopeful, peaceful, tolerant world for all.