The King's Speech
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
February 25th, 2011
In our youth, many of us learned the following story about Moses in his youth:
He was loved by Pharaoh and Pharaoh's daughter who had adopted him. While playing, Moses would take the crown from upon Pharaoh's head and put it on his own. This worried the Egyptian magicians who had a prophecy that the person who would do this to Pharaoh would take his kingdom away from him. Therefore Moses was tested by putting an onyx stone and glowing coals before him. If he would choose the stone, then he would be put to death but if he would choose the coals, nothing would be done to him. Like any child, Moses reached out for the precious stone, but, accordingly, the angel Gabriel came and pushed his hand to the hot coals.
We might have thought that this story was in the Torah, but it is really recorded in the Midrash collection of Exodus Rabbah and in a longer form in Dr. Louis Ginsberg's 'The Legends of the Jews.' In order to understand this Midrash one needs to know the question(s) it is answering.
We all remember the end of the Midrash: Having touched the coals, he put his fingers into his mouth and burnt his tongue, and thus he became slow of tongue and of speech. He stuttered – seemingly, for the rest of his life.
Why this Midrash? What's the point? How can we use it?
On one hand the Midrash is dealing with an entirely different subject. The Torah is silent about Moses' growing up in Pharaoh's house and court. Why is he sympathetic to the Hebrews being beaten if he grows up as an Egyptian? Was he indistinguishable from the native Egyptians, despite having two Hebrew parents? If he was cosmetically disguised externally, was he still a Hebrew internally? The Midrash answers all of these questions. Clearly it was known that Pharaoh's daughter had adopted Moses and that he was a Hebrew, as a Hebrew woman, Moses' real mother, nursed him. Therefore the Midrash hints that he knew pain, he could extrapolate from his pain to their pain, and thus Moses had a sympathetic chord in his heart from his birth. What songs did his real mother sing to him from his birth? What stories did she tell him, until he was weaned and taken away from her? Surely it was the saga and the music of his Hebrew people. There was ample reason to suspect Moses in Pharaoh's court. And so there grew up a legend of how Moses was tested and was able to remain there until the time of his own choosing, when his own soul motivated his actions to save his brethren. Then he would be ready for the divine summons. This story explains how a native Hebrew could remain at the heart of Egyptian rule and not be corrupted, for he seemingly relinquished any desire for the throne. This is the story of Moses' youth, absent from the Torah.
But there is another purpose for this Midrash.
When God commands Moses to be His messenger in Egypt to free the Israelites, Moses rejects the appointment several times. In one of them he says to God that he, Moses, is k'vad peh u-ch'vad lashon, "heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue." (Ex. 4:10). What does this mean? The commentators offer different interpretations, but Ibn Ezra says it perfectly: there were certain letters that he couldn't get out. He was a stutterer. They were the heavy letters, certain consonants, that were difficult to pronounce, and so he stuttered. Sounds familiar. Ostensibly, this is why Aaron became the spokesman before Pharaoh. Even though it is not repeated in each scene, we are supposed to imagine it is Aaron speaking and not Moses. Replace Charleton Heston. Cecil B. DeMille was wrong. Scrap the movie the Ten Commandments! Aaron is the speaker. Moses is the quiet prophet who gives him the message.
Yet later on in the Torah it doesn't seem that Moses has any problem speaking. Without Aaron present Moses speaks to others, he speaks to God, he speaks to Joshua, without the text giving us a hint of him stuttering or that someone else is doing the talking other than Moses. Moses gives them the instructions on building the Tabernacle, the sacrificial system, sending out the spies, the order of march, and the entire Book of Deuteronomy, an extended farewell speech. What has happened? What is going on?
Let me pause and encourage you to see the movie "The King's Speech" about King George VI who ascended the British throne when his brother abdicated to marry the American divorcee. It is a powerful movie. It is a movie about the soul, about transcending limitations, about hope, about love. Moses the Hebrew and George VI the King are mirror images of each other.
- Neither wants to become whom they are destined to be, leaders of their people.
- Neither wants to stand in public. The pathos of the Biblical page is deeply portrayed in the movie. In Colin Firth's voice we can hear Moses' pain in response to God command to go to Egypt.
- Both needed loving support: King George VI from his wife, Queen Elizabeth and Geoffrey Rush's Lionel Logue; Moses from Tzipporah, Aaron and God.
- Both were plagued with doubt about their ability to stand up, about their inner worth, about how others would see them, that others would reject them.
- Both discovered courage.
- Both revealed an unknown source of inner fortitude.
- Both were determined to rise up, to surmount, to triumph.
- Both did. We know the rest of their stories.
Leaving the theatre, as I have every time I come to Moses' death at the end of Deuteronomy, I felt an awe–filled inspiration about what a human being can do, the heights that can be climbed, the view of life, and the vision of history from that perch. What did Moses think as he looked at the Israelites from Mt. Nebo, remembering the forty plus years trek from Egypt to Sinai and back, the Wilderness journey and the denial of his personal entrance into the land? What did King George VI think as he made that great speech as World War II had begun, remembering the last "Great War and its horrors, as he looked at the people from the balcony? We will never really know. But we can admire and be inspired by their triumphs. We are Moses' descendants. Britain stands and the Nazis were defeated. Two leaders inspired their nations. Their triumphs should enthuse the common man and woman.
There is another movie that is being released on the issue of stuttering, "Going With The Flow," by Uri and his father Phil Schneider, an award-winning Jewish speech therapist who has worked in the field for forty years. I urge you to go to his website – www.schneiderspeech.com to gain a deeper appreciation of the subject. Click on 'media' and you can view a trailer for the movie. Investigate the entire website. There is much of great value. This is a subject not just for kings. When I was in first and second grades in public school in Brooklyn I went to speech class because I spoke with a lisp. I have no memory of the lisp nor of the class, only of the story that mother told me from my youth.
What do we learn from Moses and King George VI, the Torah and "The King's Speech"?
There lies in the human heart a source of indomitability.
Each person can summon up courage to confront an extraordinary challenge.
There is a great mitzvah in being the companion, the friend, that has no glory,
no recognition and is of inestimable value.
It is an inspiration for people of any disability to find help and support, and reject
ipso facto self-imposed limitations.
That behind any impediment lies a full-fledged, totally endowed, complete and
whole human being.
That each person is holy and reflects the Divine image, be we King or commoner,
Moses or an Israelite.
The movie and the Torah challenge us in our response, visceral, emotional, and spiritual when we encounter the full gamut of humanity, to see through, behind and beyond.