Moses was one of the most powerful and impactful figures in all of human history. Yet when he was directed by God to go and confront Pharaoh, he did not have confidence in his ability to fulfill such a mission. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should take the children of Israel out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:11), he asked. “I am not a man of words, neither from yesterday nor from the day before yesterday, nor from the time You have spoken to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10). God responded to him, “Who gave man a mouth… Is it not I, the Lord? So now, go! I will be with your mouth, and I will instruct you what you shall speak” (Exodus 4:11-12).
The sages teach that every one of us contains a spark of Moses’ soul within our own. This means that we all carry deep within us aspects of Moses’ power and his humility. Each of us is charged by God with the task of confronting the forces of darkness and liberating the world from oppression. Yet like Moses, we are not always conscious of our ability to do so. Who am I to confront tyranny? Who am I to speak truth to power? I am not an orator, or a trained fighter, or a world leader. Like Moses, I am “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.”
Yet like Moses, what we must know is that it is God who gives each of us a mouth. It is God who provides us the power of speech. And it is God who fills our mouth with the very words that we speak.
This will be better understood by a legal ruling regarding prayer. There is a question in Jewish law about how we are to pray: should it be a silent devotion, or an audible pronouncement? The daily prayer service is comprised of both – communal songs and responsive verses at times, and then “silent” prayers in which we communicate only to God. But the most central prayer is the “Shema,” which means “to hear,” and Torah law dictates that it must be loud enough that “you make your ears hear what you emit from your mouth” (Talmud, Brachos 13a). This is a strange law, particularly considering the fact that God does not have ears, or any bodily form for that matter, and He can “hear” our thoughts as easily as our words. The Alter Rebbe therefore teaches (Likkutei Torah, Shir HaShirim) that this law is not simply instructing us what the volume of our prayers should be. On a deeper level, it is informing us what prayer essentially is, and by extension, of the ultimate nature of our existence.
The Alter Rebbe notes that Torah law is very precise, with every word denoting a profound truth. He asks why the law is worded to say that one must “hear what you emit from your mouth,” rather than more simply stating that one must “hear what comes from one’s mouth.” He explains that the Zohar identifies the word “atta/you” with the source of all souls, the primordial unity from which we all come and of which we are all a part. The law regarding the volume of prayer is worded specifically as it is, the Alter Rebbe teaches, in order to instruct us that the point of prayer is to enable us to “hear” and understand that it is “atta/you”- the one soul from which all individual souls derive – that is being emitted through each of our mouths when we speak.
In other words, while we generally assume that it is our own voice that emanates from within us when we open our lips, the truth is that it is the voice of the one and only soul – ie. God – that is expressed through us. There is only one voice, but it is intoned through many throats. There is only one wind, but it blows through many vessels. We are all instruments plied by the same hand, and played with the same breath.
With this, we will understand the verse from Psalms that one is instructed to utter under her/his breath before beginning the “amida,” the standing silent prayer that is the culmination of each service: “A-donai sifasai tiftach ufi yagid tehillasecha/Lord open my lips and let me declare Your praise” (Psalms 51:17). On the simple level, this phrase is a request to God to assist us with our prayers. On a deeper level, it is an acknowledgement that it is not we who open our lips, but rather it is God who provides us the ability to do so, just as every capability we have is from Him and in His hands.
On an even more esoteric plane, we are expressing the profound awareness that the words that we express are actually His words – “Your praise” – which He communicates through our lips. We are not simply asking for the ability to praise Him; we are inviting Him to express the praises that He wants to offer through our vocal chords. While “Your praise” is simply understood as ‘praise of You,’ it can also be interpreted as the ‘praise that You express.’ What are God’s praises?
The word “tehilla/praise” is from the root “hil” which means to light or ignite, as in the phrase “beHILo nero/He lit his candle” (Job 29:3). When God expresses praise, therefore, He is illuminating the darkness with His light. When we allow Him to open our lips and vocalize His praise through our mouth, we are participating in the process of enlightenment and revelation for which He created us. The ultimate meaning of this verse then is that we are asking God to let us be the vessel for the message and the light that He desires to deliver into His creation. Let me be conscious of the fact that this is all that I am. Let me align myself with Your will so that You can flow through me without obstruction or resistance. This is the secret of prayer, the Alter Rebbe explains – “to hear what YOU emit from your mouth” – to know that it is “YOU/God” that moves and operates through each of us.
“I will be with your mouth, and I will instruct you what you shall speak,” God tells Moses. It is not only the prophets to whom, and through whom, God communicates. When we are conscious of the reality that God is truly One – that is He alone who moves through us and through all of His creation – then, like Moses, we will no longer hesitate to stand up to the forces that seem to oppose His will. We will speak the words that must be spoken through our lips, and we will fulfill the mission of tikkun/rectification for which we were created.