Moses, we all know, had a speech impediment. Or did he?
Moses complains that he is k’vad lashon, heavy of tongue. Naturally we assume that means a problem with his articulation. But as Rabbi Aaron Alexander pointed out to me, biblical scholar Richard Elliot Friedman draws a different, and plausible, conclusion. The same expression is used in Ezekiel 3:5: “For you are not sent to a people of unintelligible speech and difficult language, but to the House of Israel.” The phrase for “difficult language” is k’vad peh.
So perhaps Moses simply did not speak Hebrew. Having grown up in Pharaoh’s palace, he did not know the language of his own people. When Zipporah told her father in Midian that she had met an Egyptian, it could be a result of Moses knowing only the Egyptian language. (Rashbam, the medieval commentator, says on the contrary that Moses did not speak Egyptian.)
True or not, the interpretation carries an important message. For most of our history, to be Jewish entailed knowing and speaking a Jewish language. In our own day, Hebrew literacy is low among the same American Jews who have no trouble learning other foreign languages. Perhaps as adults we can take the example of the greatest among us, and learn to speak with and to our people in their own tongue.
Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiWolpe.