When Hashem commands Moshe in this week's parasha to return to Egypt and redeem the Jews, the latter responds with a number of excuses. Towards the end of his week-long conversation with Hashem, he brings up the fact that he lacks the requisite speaking ability for such a difficult diplomatic assignment. "I am not a man of words, nor was I yesterday, nor the day before, nor from when you first began to speak with me, your servant; for I am heavy of mouth and of tongue" (Sh'mos 4:10). The commentaries are slightly bothered by the seeming redundancy in Moshe's words. What is the difference between one who is"heavy of mouth" and one who is "heavy of tongue"? Aren't these simply two different ways to say that he had a speech impediment? The midrash, with which all of us are familiar from our days as schoolchildren, tells us that he developed this disability when, in order to show that the baby Moshe was in fact no threat to Pharaoh, the angel forced his outstretched hand away from the crown towards the burning coals, which Moshe subsequently placed in his mouth. The origin of this midrash is in itself an interesting topic, which I was going to address this week. But that can wait for another time. This week we shall try to analyze the meaning of Moshe's peculiar phrase. What exactly was this speech defect?
The Yalkut (#166), citing the "Divrei Hayamim Ha'aruch", informs us that when Moshe put the coals to his mouth, he burnt the tips of his lips and the outside of his tongue, and he was thus made "heavy of mouth and of tongue", the phrase he used to describe himself in the verse we quoted above. Ibn Ezra, despite his general objections raised to any midrashim emanating from such a source as the Divrei Hayamim Ha'aruch (see commentary of Sh'mos 3:22), makes a similar observation, namely that the two terms, "mouth" and "tongue", refer to two distinct parts of the mouth, the lips and the tongue, which were defective, and thus prevented Moshe from correctly pronouncing the sounds produced by those two organs. An almost identical approach to the verse is adopted by Rabbeinu Channanel in his commentary on the Torah, though he posits that the word "peh", or "mouth", mentioned in the verse denotes the teeth, not the lips.
So which is correct, the explanation of R' Channanel or that of the Yalkut/Ibn Ezra? Was it Moshes's teeth that were damaged, or his lips? Is it really our place to say, to decide between these great commentators? Perhaps not, but a few comments must nonetheless be made.
If we adopt the approach of the Yalkut, that Moshe's impediment was not something he was born with, but rather was caused by a bad burn, then it seems reasonable to assume that it was his lips, and the "tip of his tongue", i.e. the most sensitive areas of his mouth, as well as those most likely to make first contact with the coals, that would have received the most damage. Again, such a hot object would have had relatively little effect on Moshe's teeth, which would in any case probably have been baby teeth at the time of the incident: he was in his third year, according to the midrash. It must have been his lips, not his teeth, that caused him difficulty. So far we are on solid ground.
Ibn Ezra, however, does not cite this midrash as proof of his interpretation, and indeed, as I noted above, there is reason to believe that he rejected this particular midrash as a legitimate source altogether. Moreover, he writes explicitly that Moshe was born with his deficiency, not that it was acquired through an accident. So why then does he seem so confident that the word "peh" refers to Moshe's lips? Did he make a survey of the Torah, finding that "peh" can be used frequently to mean lips, as opposed to teeth?
Probably not. The most obvious indication in favour of the approach of Ibn Ezra, as against that of R' Channanel, is that later on (6:12) Moshe describes himself as "aral s'fasayim", i.e. he had imperfect lips. It is interesting to note that Onkelos uses precisely the same words, "yakir mamlal", heavy of speech, both in our verse regarding the words "ch'vad peh" (4:10) and in translating "aral s'fasayim". Thus we have a clear proof that Moshe's impediment lay in his lips, while no such source exists indicating a problem with his teeth.
We may also add a slightly more mischievous proof in favour of the opinion of Ibn Ezra. In introducing his arguments against being sent to speak to Pharaoh, Moshe tells Hashem that "I am not a man of words", not a man of "d'varim", as the Hebrew text has it. If we analyze the sounds contained in the word "d'varim", we find two letters, the "beis" and the "mem", which are part of the family of sounds produced by the lips, while a third, the"dales", is pronounced with the tongue. The fourth sound, the "reish", is disputed ground, and may be classed in several categories - R' Channanel places it with the teeth, though it is certainly possible to group it with the tongue sounds as well, at least judging from the substitution patterns we find in Aramaic- see Jastrow's entry on "reish" in his dictionary, where he notes that"reish" substitutes for "dales" and "lamed" in many instances. If this last assumption is correct, then we can say that Ibn Ezra's explanation has the added benefit of an extra layer of meaning, in which Moshe tells Hashem that he is neither a man of words, i.e. a public speaker, nor is he someone capable of pronouncing the word "d'varim".