Beginning the Third Drasha, Moshe’s Speech Defect and the Dangers of Demagoguery
One of Ran’s most influential contributions is his theory of charismatic leadership. The Sages insist that a prophet be admired–wealthy, tall, strong. Yet Moshe, the greatest Jewish leader of all, failed one of these criteria. Ran’s explanation of this anomaly reverberates through the ages.
The opening verse of Ran’s third Drasha is Hashem’s command to Moshe and Aharon to make Nissan the first month of the Jewish calendar year, which transitions into conveying the details of how they should offer the Paschal sacrifice.
Ran has three questions, each of which will take up one essay: 1) Why was Aharon included in this command? Since the essential answer is that Aharon earned it by helping Moshe speak to Paroh, question 2) is: why did Moshe have a speech defect, such that he’d need Aharon’s help, and then 3) What about the calendar and the offering of the Korban Pesach made them felicitous choices as the first commandment to the Jewish people?
Although the Aharon issues come up first, Ran digresses to Moshe before coming back to Aharon, so we will follow his lead.
Moshe’s Supernatural Prophecy
It’s odd, if you think about it, that Moshe Rabbenu, the greatest prophet, had a speech defect. To see how odd it is, remember that his prophecy was qualitatively different from other prophets in a way that Ran assumes could only happen supernaturally, meaning that Hashem imposed on Moshe a level of prophecy no human can reach on his or her own. Otherwise, Ran says, the Torah couldn’t confidently assert that no prophet of Moshe’s level would arise again—if Moshe reached it naturally, Hashem wouldn’t prevent others from reaching their full potential.
The marker of how miraculous Moshe’s prophecy was, for Ran, that he could prophesy while conscious. Natural prophecy, according to Ran (note that, like many rishonim, Ran thinks there is such a thing as natural prophecy, as a human being shaping him or herself well enough to achieve prophecy in the ordinary workings of the universe, not that Hashem made some kind of decision to invest that person with prophecy), involves submerging one’s physicality. Moshe didn’t need to.
Hashem wanted just this one prophet to be at a supernatural level, Ran says, so that no later prophet could claim to have superseded his revelation (take that, Christians and Moslems!).
Prophecy and Physical Perfection
Now for the speech defect. If Moshe had achieved prophecy in the natural way, we would say that he was a person with an impediment who managed to overcome it, and admire that. But if Hashem is the one shaping his prophetic abilities, why leave him stuttering or stammering?
The question becomes stronger when we notice that Jewish tradition cared about prophets’ physical presentation. While we might have thought that prophecy would focus on substance, the prophet’s intellect and character, Ran cites Nedarim 38a, which we’ll see again in a later Drasha. That Gemara says prophets need to be wise, strong, wealthy and humble, all of which it derives from Moshe.
Rambam read strength and wealth as character traits (resisting temptation and being satisfied with what one has), but Ran disagrees with this non-literal reading. In his view, prophets need to be physically and financially impressive, so that their audiences will listen (we have already seen reason to believe Ran might have limited that to prophets sent with missions, but Moshe Rabbenu fits that category).
If strength and wealth matter to a prophet, speaking well would seem even more important, especially since Ran derives the word navi from Yeshayahu 57:19’s phrase, niv sefatayim, the movement of lips. Not only that, Moshe Rabbenu questions his fitness based on his speech problems, and Hashem’s answer—who makes people’s powers of speech?—doesn’t seem to answer the question.
Proving It’s From God
Ran contends that Moshe’s speech defect was a deliberate choice by Hashem. The centrality of the Torah to all who would follow made it crucial that the people be certain of its Divine origin. That was true of the Exodus, where Hashem included miracles to start the people on their relationship with the Torah knowing that laws of nature do not apply to Hashem.
That bears repeating: Ran, in the late 1300s, already felt the need to stress that we shouldn’t think laws of nature apply to or bind Hashem, and thought Hashem orchestrated the Exodus as He did to make that clear. Doubts on that question are not, apparently, a function of our more sophisticated or scientific age; they’ve been around since at least back then.
It was particularly important that all this happen in Egypt, the center of world sorcery. Anywhere else, people could claim that these “miracles” were actually a more sophisticated sorcery than the locals could recognize, but once Paroh’s sorcerers were forced to admit defeat, it was like New York—if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
Prophet or Preacher?
That’s the story behind Moshe’s speech defect as well. Powerful speakers can motivate masses of people to remarkable feats—good or bad. Had Moshe, with all his other physically remarkable qualities, also been a fluid, persuasive speaker, naysayers might have attributed his success to those abilities, which could have called into question who or Who brought the Exodus and the Torah itself.
Thus Hashem’s words, “Who gives mouth to man, or makes some mute or deaf?” (Shemot chapter:verse) By denying him this seemingly necessary quality, even as Moshe will become the bearer of the Torah, Hashem is making clearer that this comes from Hashem, not the remarkable man who was the vessel for bringing it down from Heaven.
Two Challenges in Our Times
Ran’s brief discussion raises two issues that were already alive for his audience, but are even thornier for us. First, the idea of Moshe’s prophecy being qualitatively different from anyone who came after is lost to many today, despite being explicitly stated in the Torah. Underlying much of the discussion of Biblical Criticism is the assumption that aspects of the Torah which would be problems in a human text are equally problematic for this work. But if Moshe Rabbenu functioned at a level none of us can ever reach, that should change the conversation considerably.
Second, and related, is the reminder that Ran already viewed much of the events of the Exodus and the Giving of the Torah as specifically focused on being so supernatural, so out of the bounds of ordinary life and nature, as to be an eternal monument to the fact that our belief system, our God, our Torah, come from outside of nature.
Sadly, experience tells me that both of these ideas are more in trouble today, over six hundred years after Ran wrote his Drashot, not less. I hope reviewing his work will remind us of just how crucial he, living in an almost completely different culture from ours, already saw these issues to be. Next discussion of Aharon will revolve around different questions, but the following essay will bring us back again to seeing how we are supposed to incorporate an awareness of and belief in the supernatural or metaphysical as part of our religious lives.