Concerned parents often ask me: What does Judaism say about education for those who need more help in learning? For thousands of years, Judaism has been very clear in understanding that different people learn in different ways, that many have trouble learning. I want to take one major example of how Judaism thinks about disabilities.
During this week as we prepare for the remembrance of the destruction of the First Temple on the 9th of Av, we’re reading from the first portion of the fifth book of the Torah, Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22). Most of Devarim, which can mean “Words,” is made up of three very long farewell speeches of Moses to the people before he died. It is quite remarkable to think about Moses delivering long speeches, because this is the same Moses who, according to our tradition, had a major speech impediment. When at the Burning Bush, God commands him to go down to Egypt and deliver the Israelites from slavery, Moses tells God that he is not the right one to plead with Pharaoh, because he is not a speaker. God reassures him that his brother Aaron, who is a very good speaker, will be his spokesperson. We see Moses and Aaron going to Pharaoh, and at first Aaron is the spokesperson. But gradually, we see Moses doing his own talking, until Aaron is no longer important to the process. Following the traditional interpretation, Moses somehow overcomes his disability, or gains the confidence to speak despite his disability.
There is a very famous and popular midrash, an ancient interpretation or legend, about how Moses became a stutterer. The story goes that the Egyptian king, the Pharaoh was warned by his sorcerers that the little boy Moses, the baby who had been saved from the Nile by the pharaoh’s daughter, someday would be very destructive to Egypt. So Pharaoh puts little boy Moses in a highchair at the table, and to his left, there is a crown made out of beautiful diamonds, and on the baby’s right, there is a bowl of hot coals. The test is: if he grabs the crown, this is what he will try to do when he gets older, and so he will be executed. If, instead, he takes the coal, there is no need to worry about him.
Now like any baby, or anyone else, baby Moses puts his hand to grab the glittering crown, but an angel comes and makes his hand take a live coal, which he puts in his mouth, and this is why Moses was a stutterer, from the damage to his mouth from that incident. I remember that as a child, I found this story terrifying, imagining coal going into my own mouth. As an adult, I understand that the story was made up by tradition to explain how Moses became a stutterer.
But what really interests me is that instead of the probable contextual meaning of the Torah, that Moses simply said he was not an orator, our tradition swerves to state that God chose a man with a speech impediment to be the leader of the people to demand of Pharaoh that he let the people go. The midrash is more powerful than the text, the contextual meaning, and it is wonderful to see how despite the childhood ordeal and despite his feelings of inadequacy, Moses transcends his disability and goes on to become the orator who speaks these long farewell speeches that make up the fifth book of the Torah.
So here are the two lessons: 1) God loves each person, no matter the gifts or the disabilities; and 2) With courage, we can deal with our problems.
As some of us have seen online – We understand a person is defined by life: Moses’s early life was full of emotional trauma. He was cast adrift by his first family, is found and raised by a stranger from a different culture, is always under suspicion from his new family, is in a sense seen as belonging to neither the Israelites or the Egyptians. And yet, he grows up to become the greatest leader we ever had. It’s as if God is telling us: Your usual notion of a person who is a leader because he or she is perfect or better than others is simply in error. The best among us are not those who are the best looking or the tallest or the ones with the most natural gifts. They are the ones who can deal with their disabilities and their issues and not only keep going, who not only help themselves, but who also can take what they have learned from their own struggles and help others.
They are the ones who know that many of us are slaves to our insecurities and our feelings of inadequacy, and they are the ones who tell us that we can escape these enslavements. That was the greatness of Moses, that he who had problems with his voice, became the voice for the voiceless. He became the one to transmit devarim, the words of our people. Each of us must find our voice, in order to encourage each person to become truly free.