Even in children with stable backgrounds, the question of “who am I?” is important. In all cases, it is quite common for people to self-limit: instead of only asking “what can I be?” they also seek to eliminate options by saying, “I am not like those people.” People who live like this tend to limit their social circles. They get tattoos to literally imprint their identities on themselves. They try very hard to belong to something. Lacking an identity is deeply frightening.
The challenges that every person has in terms of understanding identity are magnified for adopted children. The question of identity can easily haunt and emotionally scar a child who knows they were given up, and then adopted. Even if your bio-Mom felt she had no choice, and even if your adopto-Mom turns out to be the greatest mother in the world … any child who comes out of those circumstances quite rightly has open questions and issues.
This is one way to look at the early life of Moses. It would be counter-textual to make Moses into some kind of Baby Jesus, perfect through his entire life. Instead, the text tells us that Moses was abandoned by his mother:
When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile.
Moses was then adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh. Though he then returned to his bio-mom to be nursed, once weaned he was sent back to live in the royal house, probably before the age of sustained memory (arguably, given up by his mother twice). He was given the name “Moses” by his adopting mother, and he (and everyone else, including G-d) used that name. We learn nothing more of his bio-parents: it seems possible and even likely that Moses had no memories of his father or his bio-mother. There is also no mention of an adoptive father or male role model until many years later, after the Exodus (when Jethro/Yisro features). Moses is raised by the classic single mother, with the added twist that he knew he was adopted after his bio-mom, with regrets, abandoned him by leaving him in a little boat floating in the waters of the Nile.
No wonder Moses was troubled. No wonder, indeed, that when he was older, he went out to see the people he had been born into. He was trying not only to learn about the Hebrews from which he came: Moses was trying to learn about himself. And it was also no wonder that Moses, even with the best intentions in the world, and even though it may well have been justified, killed a man. Men who are not raised by fathers are more prone to violence.
Moses then left Egypt, afraid of the consequences of his actions. He fled to a foreign country, Midian, and married a woman from there: She was from an entirely different people, culture and religion. Moses is betwixt and between three different and wholly incompatible identities. In his own words, Moses is “a stranger in a strange land.”
Seeing Moses in this light, many things come together to make sense. Moses’ question to G-d at the burning bush is, after all, “Who am I?” He genuinely wants to know, because he is not sure. Which helps explain why G-d has to spend quite a lot of effort trying to convince Moses to step up to the challenge.
We are not judging Moses here – we are trying to understand him! Imagine what an incredible challenge it must be for anyone to go from “zero to hero.” This redemptive or growth journey is indeed at the core of many great stories throughout history, both factual and fictional. It is inspiring to consider how people overcome their upbringing, the challenges that they face when they confront not only external obstacles, but also the internal ones, the baggage that comes from childhood, from the knowledge that you were abandoned at birth. Moses’ story is probably the single greatest of all these journeys. But despite G-d’s best efforts, Moses’ transformation to confident leader did not happen at the burning bush.
Although Moses eventually is persuaded to go and talk to Pharaoh and the Jewish people, that mission fails. The people don’t pay him any attention. As a result, Moses’ self-image suffers:
But Moses appealed to G-d saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, me—who has a speech impediment!” [And again, later on] Moses appealed to G-d saying, “See, I have a speech impediment, how then should Pharaoh heed me!”
There is a crazy thing about this “speech impediment”: nobody else in the text ever has trouble understanding Moses. Nobody else even mentions this “impediment.” This speech impediment was Moses’ excuse for not doing what G-d commanded, to retain some shred of who he had been before the burning bush had upended his life. It seems to be a way for Moses to retain something of himself, self-limiting in order to cling to the identity he had created. Perhaps Moses was afraid he would lose himself if he lost the impediment. Not so differently in principle from people who identify with their tattoos and clothing styles and other tribal affiliations.
Why do I think the impediment is in Moses’ mind? Because it seemingly vanishes not long after! Despite not having any corrective surgery or physical therapy, Moses goes from being unable to talk to Pharaoh, to confronting him and speaking to him directly! And from that point on, Moses talks directly, without relying on his brother to be his mouthpiece. The “impediment” is never mentioned again.
How does he lose the impediment? What changes?
If we accept the story as the text tells us, Moses was abandoned on the banks of the Nile. The word in the Torah for “bank” is safah. It is the same word used in the Torah for “lips.” And it is the same word that Moses uses to describe his impediment: a blockage of the safah, his lips. So Moses claims to have a blockage that is linguistically connected to the banks of the Nile where Moses had been left in a basket by his mother. There is a scar.
Indeed, the speech impediment may not have been linguistic at all! Moses may be saying that he has a problem interfacing with other people (which was clearly demonstrated when Moses interacted with Hebrew slaves and Egyptians before Moses fled Egypt). If he has a problem working with other people, it explains why he doubts his ability to convince either the people or Pharaoh of the merits of his argument. But the specific word used is connected back to his abandonment and adoption, suggesting that everything connects back to the place where it happened: the banks of the Nile. Moses sees his limitations as stemming from his past.
Moses’ impediment connects to that event, and that location. He abandoned there, and he is saved there. Moses neither wants to relive the experience of being abandoned, nor show ingratitude to the woman who saved him there. He mentally creates an impediment where safah, interfacing, is concerned.
The word for “impediment” is orloh, which also means “foreskin,” something we remove in part because it gets in the way of a complete relationship. (The word also refers to a blockage of the spiritual heart, as well as fruit from a new tree that is blocked from us; developing the relationship must wait for the blockage to be removed.)
What if the speech impediment that only Moses was aware of, was instead a psychological blockage stemming from his past? The way in which the blockage is removed suggests this is reasonable. G-d tells Moses:
Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is coming out to the water, and station yourself before him at the bank (safah) of the Nile, taking with you the rod that turned into a snake.
Moses goes back to the place where he had been abandoned. And there, in that place, he finds himself in precisely the place where he had first been lost. He goes back to his roots, and gets a do-over. He deals with his trauma by confronting it and putting it behind him.
The mention of the rod that transformed into a snake is no coincidence, either: the first snake led to transformative knowledge. That snake led Adam and Eve toward awareness of good and evil, of the self-awareness that they were naked: the snake helped them understand their potential.
If so, then the presence of the snake did for Moses precisely what it did for Eve: the snake delivers transformative knowledge that changes the affected person forever more. The “old” Moses is gone, just like the pre-fruit Eve is gone.
Moses combines the elements of the banks, the savah, with the snake. And he seems to entirely shed the speech impediment! He grows – Moses now knows who he is! He can do the job G-d has called him to do, without an intermediary, without any more blockages.
[an @iwe, @eliyahumasinter, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @susanquinn work!]
P.S. Note that the banks, the safah, are also where Pharaoh dreams of the invading cows (representing the Hebrews. To interpret those dreams, Pharaoh needs someone who can “cross over” – Joseph the ivri. ) The safah are also the place of Moses’ re-birth, and subsequently where the bodies of the dead Egyptians are found after the sea returns. There is deep symbolism for both Jews and Egyptians in the safah, in the physical and spiritual borders of their respective lands and societies. For Jews, safah more often refers to lips – where words and ideas issue from a person. The Egyptians, a material and natural people, are locked into their own physical borders.
P.P.S. Moses is not in a hurry to remove orloh, impediments, in general. He declines to circumcise his own son, and he does not command the people to circumcise while in the wilderness. Perhaps, at some level, he feels that the impediments that restrict full relationships have some value. After all, people tend to define themselves as much as what they cannot do as they define themselves by what they can. In Moses’ case, the impediment, the orloh, for his lips, his safah, was a chapter in his psychological and spiritual growth. Perhaps he does not want to force others to undergo the radical change that he himself initially resisted before G-d compelled him.