When Moses Has Nothing To Lose


Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 7:57 p.m.

Torah: Deut. 1:1-3:22

Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27

Havdalah: 9:01 p.m.

Tisha b’Av Fast: 8:12 p.m. (Mon.)
 to 8:42 p.m. (Tue.)

‘Surely, the daughters of Tzelophad have a voice” [Numbers 27:7].

Who has a voice in the Bible? Certainly we think of Moses — Moshe Rabbenu (Moses, our teacher) — as someone with a voice. Actually, he doesn’t really develop that voice until this week’s parsha, the opening of the Book of Deuteronomy — Devarim, literally “words.”

What has taken him so long? The first time God entrusts Moses with leadership, Moses perceives himself as blocked, unable to speak, telling God, “I am heavy of mouth and of language” [Exodus 4:10-11]. God’s responds that it is He who gives humans the ability to speak; now, at the end of his life, Moses does so fluently.  God has not chosen to enlist older brother Aaron who is “daber yidaber” [Ex. 4:14], a ready speaker, but Moses.

Perhaps now, Deuteronomy’s onset, Moses has nothing to lose, having already been dismissed, removed as the one who will lead the Israelites across the Jordan into the Promised Land. Moses will die atop Mount Nebo by the end of our book, tragically looking over the place that would have been the fruition of his dream. God states, “I have caused you to see it with your own eyes, but there you will not enter” [Deut. 34:4]. Dispossessed, his life drawing to a close, Moses’ demise is at hand. If he does not speak now, there will be no time to do so.

So speak he does. Perhaps he is under the influence of the daughters of Tzelophchad, with their shrewd and dexterous handling of the conundrum they found themselves in at the death of their father. When they come to him in Numbers 27, Moses is baffled by their request: women were not intended to inherit land in ancient Israel. And yet, in the absence of a male heir, what is to be done with the inheritance that rightly belongs to the family of Tzelophchad? Moses takes the question to God whose response is that these daughters can inherit the land, if only as a stopgap measure. Possibility arises from what appeared impossible.

That verdict is the last item in the Book of Numbers, “commanded by God by the hand of Moses” [Num. 36:13]. Now, in Devarim, we move from the “hand of Moses” to his words. Devarim opens, “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel” [Deut. 1:1]. Intervention or assistance from God is not part of the verse. The man who initially described himself as having “uncircumcised lips” [Ex. 6:12] is now an orator.

Moses has never been one for whom words come easily or fluently. As young baby, having to undergo the dislocation of moving from a Hebrew-speaking household to an Egyptian-speaking one, we imagine that as with many bi-lingual children, his speech was delayed. Then there is the Midrash that says he was a stutterer. Moses describes himself not only as “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” but as “aral sefatayim,” with blocked lips [Ex. 6:12, 30].

One concordance renders “aral” as “atum,” sealed up, a word known to those of us who spent the 1991 Gulf War in Israel for the “cheder atum,” the sealed room that we needed to create to shut ourselves off from the chemical weapons that we believed Iraq might deploy against Israeli civilians. This sense of being sealed off and blocked is important to Moses and who he is. Avivah Zornberg in “Bewilderments,” her book on Numbers, says Moses has “lips webbed together,” and that his “struggle with language thus can be understood as a reluctance to be born into the world of others.”

Zornberg continues, Moses “requires the act of milah [circumcision] to release him from his locked-in state and to generate the milah [the word].” As we know, Moses was uncircumcised until his wife Tzipora makes him into a “bridegroom of blood for circumcisions” [Ex. 4:26]. His wife physically freed him to enter into the world of others, but it took other women, the daughters of Tzelophchad and their example, to fully free him to speak.

In Deuteronomy, Moses is retelling and reauthorizing the events of the past, his own version, telling his story, with rebuke to the people he deems necessary. This is fitting as Devarim is always the portion read on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, a time the people need to hear rebukes about behavior that has led to the destruction.

There is a lovely irony here: Moses with his honesty and stinging critique is fully enrolled in the Jewish people, even at the moment he is leaving them as a leader and as a living person. Sad and painful, yet we sense that these unleashed words with their scathing critique and sting allow him to speak fluently. Though engaging in rebuke, the parsha ends with his exhortation not to fear what is coming with the entrance to the land, for God is “the one who will battle for you.”

Moses’ confidence, both in God and his own ability to speak, allows him to give his version of Israelite history.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of the “Reading Genesis” (Continuum) anthology.