Moses is rarely thought of as a person with a disability. We all know his story – how he was hidden in the bulrushes as a baby, became a prince of Egypt, led the children of Israel out of slavery and received the Torah on Mt Sinai. We think of Moses as a leader, possibly the greatest leader we have had. He did a pretty good job of orchestrating & leading the Exodus, so everyone focuses on his ability and not his limitations.
You may recall that Moses didn’t really want the job as leader of the Jewish people. At the Burning Bush he argued with God and said he couldn’t confront Pharaoh and convince him to let the Jews leave Egypt. God brushed most of Moses’ objections to being His messenger to one side and considered them irrelevant. But Moses was able to convince God that he did, indeed, have a real limitation. Moses says in the Torah [Exodus 4:10]: “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words…. I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.”
Most of what we know about Moses and his disability does not come from the Torah itself, but from the many midrashim or stories developed by commentators to flesh out the sparse statements of the Torah. The most common description of Moses’ speech problems is that Moses was a stutterer – probably because this was the view of Rashi, the popular 11th-century medieval French commentator. On the other hand, Abraham Ibn Ezra, writing several decades after Rashi, thought that Moses was unable to produce all the sounds made with the tongue and the lips, and that there were many words he could only articulate with difficulty. There are a number of other theories, too.
Stuttering is believed to be a problem caused by childhood trauma – and this was something Moses was said to have suffered. The story goes as follows: Moses was an exceedingly bright and beautiful baby who attracted everyone’s attention. His surrogate grandfather Pharaoh would play with him and dandle Moses on his knees. Whenever he could do so, Moses would reach up and take the crown from Pharaoh’s head and placed it on his own. This worried the Egyptian sorcerers who were concerned that Moses was destined to seize the reins of power.
So the advisers devised a test for Moses. Two plates were offered to the infant – one of gold and the other of glowing coals. As reaching for the gold would result in Moses’ death, the archangel Gabriel pushed his hand so that he grabbed the coal. In keeping with the behavior of young children, Moses instinctively put his hand with the coal into his mouth and burnt his lips and tongue. This is said to be the cause of the speech defect that limited Moses’ ability to function.
We generally expect our leaders to be great orators – to be able to use all the means of rhetoric available to them; to be able to convince all listeners of the rightness of their cause. While this was something Moses was not, God did not consider Moses’ limitation to be so fundamental that, in the words of disability discrimination law, he was unable to perform the essential or inherent requirements of the job. Rather, God sought and quickly found a solution to the problem. Moses’ brother Aaron could speak in Moses’ place. With this simple facilitation, Moses could take the job on.
The case of Moses is an example par excellence of what can happen when a person is appropriately facilitated. Providing the support needed was not so very difficult. This will often be the case, if only there is sufficient will to make the accommodations. However, the fact of its uncomplicated provision is indeed inclusion of Biblical proportions. Here is a model of how all people can achieve greatness – even if they are reluctant or have less faith in themselves that they should.
Melinda Jones is a modern Orthodox feminist human rights lawyer and disability advocate. Some of her other writing can be found at: https://independent.academia.edu/MangoSalute Melinda also edits a new online intercultural magazine that can be found at https://mangosalute.com/salutetheday