Religion & Beliefs

Moses, Uncut

This past Monday marked Martin Luther King Jr. Day, honoring a courageous leader whose passionate sacrifice and prophetic speeches shaped an Exodus from the bondage of racism, offering dignity and freedom to an entire nation. Imagine a leader of such … Read More

By / January 18, 2007

This past Monday marked Martin Luther King Jr. Day, honoring a courageous leader whose passionate sacrifice and prophetic speeches shaped an Exodus from the bondage of racism, offering dignity and freedom to an entire nation. Imagine a leader of such proportions and scope—with a heavy speech impediment. What if he or she has a stutter or the inability to make a coherent sentence? Oh well, yes, there is that man in the White House, but we mean real leaders, agents of prophetic change whose deeds and words motivate revolutions. How much of their power is derived form oratory ability? Moses, the hero of the ancient Exodus, is famously known for just such a challenge. In this week’s Torah Episode, Va’Era, he continues to struggle against the mission that has been given to him at the burning bush: to free his people. In the second round of negotiations with the surprising deity with the ancient Hebrew resonance and new, unfamiliar name, Moses resists the role by claming that his lips are, literally, sealed—preventing him from delivering the Divine word to the King of Egypt. The saga of Moses’ reluctance to accept this historic mantle is interesting enough, but what really grabs the translators’ attention is the idiom he uses for his inadequacy, somehow linking lips to penis, and body to national identity.

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In the second round of negotiations with the invisible Deity, Moses resists the role by claiming that his lips are, literally, sealed – covered by a foreskin. He is speaking figuratively, of course, but what can this mean? That his lips that have not been denatured through a covenantal act, have not been dedicated to Divine service? That they have not been stripped of the covering of Egyptian, the language of his upbringing? Translators have wrestled with this disclaimer in numerous ways:

Exodus 6:12, according to the King James Bible: And Moses spake before the LORD, saying, Behold, the children of Israel have not hearkened unto me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips? (KJV)

Other translations replace “uncircumcised lips” with “impeded speech” (Etz Chayim), “difficulty of speech” ( Pseudo Jonathan) or “sealed lips” (Artscroll), creatively addressing the words AREL S’FTAIM as metaphor for what is otherwise a really peculiar physical condition. The word AREL is usually read as “uncircumcised, derived from the primitive root”: “to strip” or “to expose.” So what's going on, Moses? Are you uncut and unsuitable or just not cut out for the job? Does your reluctance to be recruited for this campaign express itself in a stammering stage fright? Did you press a burning coal to your lips as an infant, as legends tell, so that you are forever marked and scarred? Did your infancy as a hidden child traumatize you, the maternal finger ever pressed over your lips to keep you quiet? Perhaps all of the above. And the best we can do as translators is to offer our own: tongue tied, speechless, Moses refuses the nomination and prefers to stay where it’s familiar, back with the sheep. Perhaps his progress shows us how personal limitations—real or perceived—can be made into advantages, transforming self and society in surprising and inspiring ways. Perhaps, too, his story reminds us of how important it is to have leaders who know their own weaknesses and find partners who can help them lead. After all, Moses' protests convince the Almighty to add a speechwriter and official spokesman to the Exodus Campaign: Aaron, the original translator or Divine Word. Next week: Join the reluctant hero and his sidekick for the fight to freedom…frogs and all.