But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.
But Moses appealed to the LORD, saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!”
The pathology described here is what the Zohar calls the Exile of the Word. The dynamic of language, of communication, has failed. In the Zohar, this failure is the profound meaning of exile; it encompasses the inability to hear and the inability to speak. Moses’ speech problem, in this context, is to be understood as a function of a deeper cultural rupture. The ears of this generation do not, cannot respond to living language. For this reason, Moses will not, cannot speak.
The impasse of this moment, in which all protagonists close out the word of God, is the essential dilemma of redemption.
What happens when God speaks but no one listens? Why would people deaf to God? How do they listen again? How does God react to the deafness?
Midrash HaGadol 6:2 (Avivah Zornberg)
R. Yossi Haglili said: God said to Moses, “My children in Egypt deserve total destruction, as it is said, ‘I said to them, Each of you thow away the detestable things that you are drawn to, and do not defile yourselves with the fetishes of Egypt … But they defied Me and refused to list to Me.’ (Exek 20, 7-8) But I have decided to act for the sake of My great Name, so that it is not profaned … and I seek to set them free from Egypt — and you say to Me, Send by whose hand You will send!” [from Moses’ response at the burning bush (Shemot 4:13 )]
The people are distracted — distracted by the bright, shiny things in Egypt, but also by their endless work and suffering.
… Pharaoh repeatedly blocks out God’s message, in a controlled frenzy of fear. In doing so, he hardens himself, making himself ultimately incapable of hearing, responding, yielding t a knowledge that would diminish his beleaguered self.
I am suggesting that Pharaoh becomes a demonic expression of the human desire to be unchanging and invulnerable, like God.
Pharaoh cannot listen because of fear. To listen means to acknowledge that he is not god, and his ego cannot tolerate that knowledge.
Moses listens but does not speak. Moses must grow to be a prophet. He must move beyond his humility, and challenge his role (as a younger brother), and the father who raised him (Pharaoh).
Midrash Devarim Rabbah (Avivah Zornberg)
R. Levi said: “Why should we learn from another place, when can we learn from its own proper place? Moses before he came to merit the Torah, was described as “not a man of words.” But when he came to merit the Torah, his tongue was healed and he began to speak words: “These are the words that Moses spoke …” (Deut 1:1).
The cure is to be Torah. When Moses “comes to merit” Torah, words rush to his lips. But how does one “come to merit” Torah? How does one come at redemption, if it is not already within? Rabbi Nachman answers: listen to stories about hope for God. Off guard, on will be infiltrated; almost unconsciously, one will begin the process of incorporation, of making Torah one’s own. … The power of narrative to generate worlds becomes, in this reading, the way to redemption. In the Exodus story, of course there is a constant reference to the fact that the purpose of the story is “so that you shall tell the tale …” The logic is challenging: God foretells redemption; redemption happens and is narrated in the Torah, so that all future generations will go on narrating. The crucial moment is when a stupefied nation is aroused to listen and to tell …
It is when Moses acknowledges his inability to speak that he is reborn as a prophet and gains the ability to grow.