Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Think you don’t have what it takes? Neither did Moses:
“And Moses spoke before the Eternal, saying, ‘Behold, the children of Israel would not listen to me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips.’” [Ex. 6:12]
When God appeared to Moses at the Burning Bush in last week’s parasha, Moses tried to beg out of the whole affair, citing his inability to handle the job, in part because he was slow of speech and tongue. In this week’s parasha, after Moses has gone to Egypt to confront Pharaoh, Moses complains to God of his failure and uses a strange phrase to reinforce why he is the wrong man for the job: he has aral s’fatayim – uncircumcised lips.
What on earth are ‘uncircumcised lips’?
Certainly, this is not a physical description – or at least not a description of a surgical procedure. We know from elsewhere in the Torah that Moses was an eloquent speaker. His speeches and poetry have inspired our people for thousands of years. Besides, nowhere in Torah is there any mention of God performing a miracle to heal Moses of a physical handicap which made it difficult for him to speak. While it is true that Moses was eventually circumcised, it was definitely not done to his lips!
The great medieval rabbinic commentator Rashi taught that the word aral (uncircumcised) really means “obstructed.” Among the several prooftexts he cites are:
“Behold, their ear is arala (uncircumcised/stopped up), they cannot hear.” [Jer. 6:10]
By defining uncircumcised as “closed up,” Rashi teaches that Moses’ challenge was more psychological than physical. Moses’ lips were obstructed, because his mind was obstructed.
A true story from my childhood:
I was the kid in little league who sat in left field picking dandelions. I could have been an amazing baseball player, except I couldn’t catch, throw, run or hit – and everyone knew it. One day at practice, the coach accidentally hit a powerful line drive right at me. I’m not sure quite what happened, but instead of running away, I just stuck out my hand. With a loud “pop” the ball landed in my glove! Nobody could believe it – especially me. Having caught the ball, I was supposed to throw it to the second baseman. Again, amazingly, the throw was accurate. The coach hit the next several balls to me, varying grounders, pop flies and another line drive. I caught every ball, running all over left field – and for the first time, began to actually play baseball. My teammates cheered, and my confidence grew. While I would never be “all-pro” material, I discovered that I was capable of far more than I realized.
Moses was not playing a game, and the stakes were much higher. Yet, the blockage was the same. Surgical circumcision was not the solution. Moses had to learn that his initial failure was merely a step towards success. As Einstein taught: “failure is success in progress.”
You and I know how the story ends, but Moses still had a lot to learn. It was not enough for Moses to know that he had been chosen by God to lead – he needed to find his own voice. So, God sends him right back to try again.
It seems to me that this is a lesson for us all.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras