In the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Vaera, Moshe was instructed by Hashem to give encouragement to the Jewish people upon the upcoming redemption out of servitude and bondage and inheritance of the Land of Canaan. “God spoke to Moshe, and He said to him, ‘I am the Lord. I appeared to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov with [the name] Almighty God, but [with] My name YHWH, I did not become known to them. And also, I established My covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojournings in which they sojourned. And also, I heard the moans of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians are holding in bondage, and I remembered My covenant.’ Therefore, say to the children of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a God to you, and you will know that I am the Lord your God, Who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you to the land, concerning which I raised My hand to give to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov, and I will give it to you as a heritage; I am the Lord’ ” (Shemos 6:2-8).
The next pasuk says that Moshe related what Hashem told him to the Jewish people, but they did not accept what he said. “Moshe spoke thus to the children of Israel, but they did not hearken to Moshe because of shortness of breath and because of [their] hard labor” (Shemos 6:9).
Why didn’t the Jewish people accept such encouraging words? The pasuk states two reasons: because of shortness of breath, which the Ralbag attributes to Moshe, as will be explained shortly, and because of their hard labor, which the Mesillas Yesharim in chapter 2 explains, “In truth, this is one of the cunning strategies of the evil inclination, to relentlessly burden people’s hearts with his service so as to leave them no room to reflect and consider which road they are taking. For he knows that if they were to put their ways to heart even the slightest bit, certainly they would immediately begin to feel regret for their deeds. The remorse would go and intensify within them until they would abandon the sin completely. This is similar to the wicked Pharaoh’s advice saying, “intensify the men’s labor…” (Ex. 5:9). His intention was to leave them no time whatsoever to oppose him or plot against him. He strove to confound their hearts of all reflection by means of the constant, incessant labor.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Jewish people were working so hard that they did not have the time or brainpower to think about and digest what Moshe was telling them. However, the Ralbag adds that if not for Moshe’s “shortness of breath” then they would have accepted what Moshe had told them. What does this mean? The lesson the Ralbag learns from pasuk 9 is that when a person wants to express something to other people, he should formulate his words with the purpose of convincing the person of what he desires of them, using fine and flowery speech so that he will be pleasing to listen to. Without this, it is possible one will not get what he requests, even if it is something which would benefit them (the listeners). We see this from the fact that Hashem commanded Moshe to tell the Jews all that He told him, and most of it was for their own good. Indeed, it was convincing enough that they should have trusted his words, but still the Jews did not listen to Moshe because of the “shortness of breath” of Moshe that he didn’t put in the effort to place his words in an orderly and complete fashion so that they would sound pleasing and believable. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Ralbag, in his verse-by-verse commentary, adds that Moshe had spoken directly to the Jews without Aharon as intermediary as indicated in pasuk 6, “Therefore, say to the children of Israel.” Then Hashem told Moshe to speak to Pharaoh without Aharon as intermediary, “But Moshe spoke before the Lord, saying, ‘Behold, the children of Israel did not hearken to me. How then will Pharaoh hearken to me, seeing that I am of impeded lips?’” What Moshe meant by “impeded lips” was that his speech was closed, meaning that the gates of speech were closed in front of him like a person sentenced to be speechless. Therefore, in the next pasuk it writes, “So the Lord spoke to Moshe and to Aharon,” all that He commanded to say to the Jews and Pharaoh. The point being that Hashem spoke to Moshe to in turn speak to Aharon, and Aharon would be the intermediary for the messenger of Hashem to speak on his behalf. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
We must put into perspective what transpired. It is well known that Moshe had some form of verbal handicap, received when he burned his lips on hot coals at the age of 3 when Pharaoh tested him to see if he could be trusted in the palace (Shemos Rabba 1:26). From that day Moshe had a speech impediment. Moshe originally objected to accepting leadership over the Jewish people when he spoke to Hashem at the burning bush, with one of his excuses being that he had a speech impediment and Hashem told Moshe that Aharon would speak for him. Hashem evidently still insisted in the beginning that Moshe would speak to both the Jews and Pharaoh. Moshe tried with the Jews, it didn’t work, and before going to Pharaoh he told Hashem ‘I can’t do this,’ and Hashem acquiesced and brought Aharon in as an intermediary.
Obviously, Moshe had the potential to speak eloquently and get the message clearly across; if not, Hashem would not have wasted His time. So what went wrong? It is actually a bit shocking, if one thinks about it! Moshe had the playbook right in front of him. Hashem told him exactly what to tell the Jewish people. He was like a teleprompter of sorts for Moshe. Moshe of course had the care and desire to tell the Jewish people that they would be seeing salvation soon, don’t worry this terrible exile, servitude will end very soon, and you will be redeemed in exemplary fashion. He cared so much for his people and only wanted the best for them, so why couldn’t he muster up the ability to give over the message with all its flowery detail, excitement, and luster that would energize them to believe in and accept their exciting fate?
It would seem, on some level, though he believed completely in Hashem, accepted his leadership role, and was completely faithful and caring for the Jewish people, but because of the handicap he had, on some miniscule level it effected his confidence in formulating what he was supposed to say in an eloquent and orderly fashion to the degree that he felt hindered and speechless. That is why he told Hashem that he had “impeded lips” and in fact Moshe was “short of breath” when speaking to the Jews. Hashem gave Moshe the chance to overcome his handicap on his own, but Moshe felt he was not ready to, and without any qualms Hashem gave Aharon the job of being Moshe’s mouthpiece.
Still in all, Moshe Rabbeinu was the greatest leader of all time and the first Medrish Rabba at the beginning of Devarim says that through learning and teaching Torah his speech impediment was eventually healed. This is the power of Torah!