The Stutterer


Sensitivity, Leadership and the Secret of Communication

He spoke slowly and deliberately. Every word seemed carefully measured, as if he was being charged by the syllable. Nothing more than necessary was said and nothing less. Rarely did I hear a speaker so focused and precise.

Even more impressive was his refinement and humility. He spoke about the challenges each of us face – some of us are coming off personal loss, others hurting from psychological scars and yet others challenged by physical handicaps. The familiarity and empathy with which he expressed the inner loneliness associated with these wounds showed that he had suffered much in his life.

“Be patient with yourself,” he said, “don’t rush things and don’t get caught up with the whizzing forces around you. Let yourself be – and always know that you have a beautiful soul inside of you, despite the outer scars you may carry. When your skin gets burned it hurts, but it doesn’t make you feel inadequate or unworthy. The same is with our emotional pains and insecurities. They are what they are, and do not reflect your inherent value.”

As he concluded his moving talk, suddenly and quite deliberately, he quickened the pace of his words. “Now let me share with you my… li-li-li-li-li-little s-s-s-secret,” he stammered, barely able to finish the sentence. “From the time I was a li-li-li-ttle child, I s-s-s-stuttered. But,” and he slowed down again, “with hard work and patience I have learned to control my inclination. You can too.”

He slowly walked away from the podium. The entire audience sat stunned.

I felt so sad. I remembered a classmate who stuttered. It would always break my heart to witness his stammering voice, the facial contortions, struggling to express himself. But then I remembered that this man just spoke for 40 minutes expressing from the depths of his heart a most powerful and needed message. “What a display of courage?” I thought to myself. “What strength of character to be so vulnerable in front of a crowd!”

*  *  *

Who was the first documented stutterer in history?

This week’s Torah portion tells us. Moses is chosen by G-d to redeem the Jewish people from their oppression under Pharaoh and the Egyptians. In his classical dialogue with G-d, one that teaches us volumes, Moses resists becoming G-d’s messenger.

Three times and with three different expressions Moses declares that he cannot speak: “I am not a man of words – not yesterday, not the day before, not from the very first time You spoke to me. My speech is difficult and my tongue is difficult” (Exodus 4:10). “The children of Israel did not listen to me. How then will Pharaoh listen to me, seeing that I am of closed lips?” (6:12;30).

Moses was the communicator par-excellence; the one chosen to transmit the Torah to his generations and generations to come. Why, of all people, did G-d make it so that the ultimate communicator was “not a man of words,” a man whose speech and tongue were “difficult”?!

Explains the Zohar (II 25b), that in the Egyptian exile Moses’ “speech was in exile.” Moses, who in his selflessness was a seamless channel for the Divine, a totally integrated spirit and body, could not be duplicitous: In a world of pain – a depraved Egyptian exile, imposing slavery and genocide on an innocent people – Moses transparently reflected the reality around him, and could therefore physically not speak clearly; his “speech was in exile” together with the people who were in Egyptian exile. With suffering all around him Moses’ mouth was literally locked.

A more callous person, whose life does not necessarily reflect the pain of others – can continue speaking and pontificating even when he should be silent. As we unfortunately see all the time how we can easily go about smiling and celebrating while the city around us is burning. People are usually out to protect themselves and couldn’t care less about the suffering of others.

But Moses, the faithful shepherd, could not rest when he witnessed others in pain. His physical body ached and his mouth quivered from all the suffering the Jewish people endured in Egypt.

On a spiritual level, the mystics explain that the root Moses originated from is a dimension that is beyond expression. Moses’ soul was from the hidden world of “thought,” which cannot be expressed in the revealed world of “speech.” Moses therefore argued that he is not the person to redeem the people from the conscious world (speech).

G-d, however, disagreed. “Who gave man a mouth … Is it not I, G-d? Now go, and I will be your mouth and direct what you say” (4:11-12). Precisely because Moses was the epitome of selflessness, because he felt the pain of others and was a soul that transcended expression (in words), therefore he was the one that G-d chose to redeem the people from their exile.

And the power to do so came from the Divine “I will be your mouth,” which imbued Moses with the power to transcend his “stutter” and communicate effectively with Pharaoh and finally free the Jewish nation from the Egyptian exile.

Ultimately, once they were redeemed from their misery in Egypt and they began integrating the Divine into their material lives, Moses too was healed and was able to express in words the deepest dimensions of the Divine.

In other words, a man of selfless bittul always reflects the reality around him. In a world of suffering, in exile, a schism develops between his thoughts and words, and he falls silent. In a world of redemption he becomes channel between the supra-conscious world of thought and the conscious world of words.

As we see that Moses becomes the greatest communicator in all of history. Following the exodus from Egypt, Moses receives the Torah at Sinai and proceeds to teach it to the people. This man of “no words” becomes the source of Divine words for all of time. An entire book of the Torah is even named “Devorim” – “these are the words that Moses spoke.” The words of Moses, the man of “no words,” are remembered forever. Is there anyone else in history whose every word is known and analyzed as those of Moses in the Bible? How many books and commentaries have been written to understand every utterance that came out of Moses’ mouth?

How is it possible that the most powerful communicator is a man of “no words”? Because true communication is not about brilliant ideas, eloquent oratory skills, compelling presentations; it is about “bittul” (selflessness), about recognizing that you are a transparent conduit to convey a truth that is greater than yourself. Moses epitomized this bittul; he was more of an absorber of truth than a “speaker.” His transparency was therefore the key to his communicative skills. See The Art of Communication.

Everything about Moses manifested “bittul” and sensitivity – as the chapter documents:

“Moses was a shepherd” (3:1): The Midrash explains that G-d tests his leaders with sheep (as He later does with David). One sheep once wandered away from the entire flock. Moses sensed the missing sheep, and went searching, only to find the young animal sipping water from a nearby brook. Moses carried the sheep back to the flock. “Ahh,” G-d’ said. “If Moses is that sensitive to a single sheep amongst thousands, even when no one is watching, how much more so he will be sensitive to my people. He is worthy of being my chosen leader.

Earlier Moses witnesses an “Egyptian kill one of his fellow Hebrews. He looked all around and saw no one, then he killed the Egyptian” (2:11-12). “He looked all around and saw no one” can be interpreted to mean that he saw no one cared – no one was concerned about the travesty being perpetrated against their fellow men. Moses however did care. So he proceeds to do what is necessary to protect innocent people from brutal genocide.

The next day Moses sees “two Hebrew men fighting.” “Why are you beating your brother?” he asked them (2:13). Moses here too showed concern about the divisiveness among the Hebrews – though he received the classical response: “who made you our prince and judge,” another way of saying mind your own business.

Ironically, in our information age, we have much to learn from Moses. With all our amazing advancements in communications technology, we have also an unprecedented level of miscommunication – between spouses, parents and children, neighbors, communities and nations. E-mail, forums, IM, blogs, VoIP has turned everyone into pundits – speaking and discussing about everything and nothing.

But are we really speaking? Are we really communicating? Who is it that said “today people read more and more about less and less?”

Moses may have been a man of “no words” but he teaches us that speaking – true speaking – is about communicating. And communicating is about listening as much as (if not more than) it is about speaking. The more transparent you are, the better your communication will be. Conversely, the more your ego is in the way, the less resonance your message will have. When your personality stands between your message and the listeners then your personality dilutes (and distorts) the message.

Most of us have been blessed with the power of lucid speech. A great gift indeed. But do we use this gift to communicate truth? Are our words kind and loving and ones that elicit love? Are we able to convey in words our innermost feelings and deepest spiritual desires? Or are our words deceptive? How often do we lie? How often do we use offensive language – words that hurt, divide and conceal, rather than words that heal, unite and reveal?   Does our body’s speech speak the words of our soul? Or is it the other way around: Our soul’s energy is forced to speak the narcissistic words of materialistic pursuits? Physically we may speak clearly, but spiritually are we all not stuttering in one way or another?

As long as there is no seamlessness between our spirits and our words we stutter along, once in a while hopefully sharing a true word or two?

Stuttering is a reflection of a misalignment. In our distorted world, where spirit and matter have yet to fuse, where our material investments do not necessarily mirror our soul’s needs, we all stutter.

We stutter in our search for love and intimacy, we stutter through our fears and insecurities, and we stutter when we are called upon to speak truth to our children and students. We stutter when we need to show kindness to friends and when we need to welcome and respect strangers.

The only difference is that some of us have mastered the art of concealing our stutters beneath an elegant “façade” of words. Whether it is the “gift of gab” or excellent “sales skills,” “spin,” “buzz,” “hype” or “hooks” – we know how to convincingly “sell” something even if it has no true benefit (or we know how to convince ourselves that it has benefit even if it doesn’t). Not to suggest that every “sale” is worthless, but it’s a far cry from transparent selflessness.

We live in a world of politicians, actors, models and performers – who pride themselves in their ability to project all sorts of images and standards with not the slightest stutter or blink.

Stuttering reflects the dichotomy of existence, the split between the inner and the outer.

But stuttering has another side to it. Every stutter is also a challenging opportunity to discover selflessness (bittul), and a brilliance that transcends mere words (as it was with Moses), as the stutterer in our opening story demonstrated with his profound empathy.

This may also explain why stuttering affects four times as many males as females. Brain scans show that in women the connective tissue that allows communication between the two hemispheres of the brain tends to be thicker, perhaps facilitating interchange. In a study made by Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the autism research center at Cambridge University and the author of “The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain,” he tries to explain that the brain structure in women may be the reason why one study from Yale found that when performing language tasks, women are likely to activate both hemispheres, whereas males (on average) activate only the left hemisphere.

He goes on to argue that psychological tests also reveal patterns of male/female differences. On average, males tend to score higher on mechanics tests than females do. Females, on the other hand, average higher scores than males on tests of emotion recognition, social sensitivity and language ability.

Many of these differences are seen in adults, which might lead to the conclusion that all they reflect are differences in socialization and experience. But some differences are also seen extremely early in development, which may suggest that biology also plays a role. For example, on the first day of life, male and female newborns pay attention to different things. On average, at 24 hours old, more male infants will look at a mechanical mobile suspended above them, whereas more female infants will look at a human face. Girls tend to talk earlier than boys, and in the second year of life their vocabularies grow at a faster rate. One-year-old girls also make more eye contact than boys of their age.

Cohen summarizes these differences by saying that “males on average have a stronger drive to systemize, and females to empathize.”

Perhaps with their extra measure of empathy, women can counter some of the stuttering effects of a systemized universe out of touch with its soul.

Moses on the other hand, because of his absolute empathy, actually absorbs and reflects the dichotomy of the universe, in order to help repair it.

By introducing the soul into our lives and its profound empathy we can redeem the forces that lock our speech in “exile.” We can reveal the brilliance that often lies concealed within the “stutters” of our lives.

There is something compelling about silence. Take silent films: With no sound to rely upon, actors have to communicate with facial expressions and body language. This is the first language that we all – as young children – are exposed to. Only later do we learn the language of words. Another way of putting it: Just as white space is more important than the actual letters of the printed word, the spaces and silence between words are more critical than the spoken sounds.

“Just as it was in the days when they left Egypt [so too in the future] I will show you wonders.” Let us learn sensitivity from Moses how to heal a fractured world.

The lessons are simple but profound:

Never be complacent. Care about those around you. Take a stand against injustice. Protect the innocent. Fight those that are ready to hurt others. Show concern and act forcefully in face of terrorism. Stand up against any form of divisiveness.

Above all: be humble and sensitive.

Allow Moses into our lives and just as then, so today, we will experience wonders.


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Rick Nierenberg
18 years ago

This is a really brilliant essay, Rabbi. Your ability to find a real essense of the material, to extropolate its significance for individual men, and to transmit it in language we can all connect to is inspiring. It shows the meaning of real THOUGHT, not the routine and mechanical analysis which I too often find in myself passing for thought. Thank you for being the conduit for this.

Michael Levy
18 years ago

“Moses was a shepherd” (3:1):
Not so, Moses was brought up as an Egyptian prince in the court of the king of Egypt, with all the privileges. His intellect was educated by Egyptian scholars not Hebrews. His soul may have taken over when he matured…But it was the Egyptian education that gave him intellectual knowledge. Please get the facts right and give praise where praise is due. It is a shame there is no record of Moses mentor teacher in Egypt?
Intelligence grows on trees.

Sarah Zulauf
18 years ago

Phenomenal weekly thought, I cried and felt empowered all in a split second of each other.

Rabbi Mark Glickman
12 years ago

Thank you for this thougtful and insightful Dvar Torah. However, I hope you wont mind if I offer an alternative interpretation.

I am a rabbi, and also a life-long stutterer, and over the years I have come to believe that true communication often demands not bittul (self-negation), but precisely its opposite – a quality we might call chutzpah.

We all face countless situations that demand that we speak up – that we say what we know to be true. But how often do we stay quiet, thinking that theyll never pay attention to us, that our words wont be of value, that in speaking up well just make fools of ourselves.

When this happens, when we silence that good and sacred part of who we are, we not only abdicate our moral responsibility as human beings, but we also affront our Creator who made us the way we are for a reason.

Communicating often demands an ability to say to ourselves, Hey, Ive got something to say here, and they need to hear it. My words might not be pretty, they might not be polished and glitzy, but theyre important, and Ive got to go ahead and speak.

Moses protested that he couldnt be the leader God wanted him to be because he wasnt a man of words. God would hear none of it, and demanded that Moses find his words, anyway.

Negating ourselves tends to shut us up. Finding the value in who we are as divinely created human beings can inspire us to speak out loud and clear.

By the way. Moses protest that hes not a man of words contains the Hebrew word gam (meaning also) three times. The Hebrew word for stutter comes from gam – gimgem.

Thanks again for your dvar. Shabbat Shalom!

12 years ago

after your treatise about saying less not more, you end off with all kinds of situations that require speech making.

12 years ago

This is another reader … Actually, Rick, although you were right that Moses was brought up and educated in Pharoahs household as an Egyptian prince, he did become a shepherd after he killed an Egyptian slave guard and fled Egypt to protect his life. It was during his time as a shepherd (40 years) that G_d appeared to him in the burning bush.

levi rapoport
12 years ago

Moses was raised and educated by his own parents. see exodus chapter 2, verses 7-11

12 years ago

HTG (verbal communication)
Quote: (-Mahatma Gandhi-)A man of a few words will rarely be thoughtless in speech; he will measure every word. We find so many people impatient to talk. All this talking can hardly be of any benefit to the world; it is so much a waste of time.

In this age of intelligence, we humans get hang-up on verbal communication so much that we miss out on the real meaning and the true essence of the actual eye and body contact. It seems we prefer to rely on vocabulary to a point where we are becoming utterly synthetic culture, totally a virtual society. Are we really communicating or just imposing ourselves on one another?

Harold Kotkin
12 years ago

I am a hypnotherapist. His trouble started of course like all troubles when you are little. The subconscious mind believes things it sees as a child up to 8 yrs old. Easily cured.

Michael Levy
12 years ago

I am replying with my braille and speech output computer.

It is tricky to discuss a disability as a metaphor, especially when the discussion leaves out the people who actually have the disabilities. Here are some questions:

How would Moses, with his stuttering, fared in todays Jewish educational set-up?

Must todays child stutterers automatically be placed in special education classes, camps, Shabbatonim, and Shidduch organizations?

Has a stutterer, or any person with a disability, been invited to speak at, seek employment with, or encouraged to attend, the Meaningful Life Center?

Why does the media tend to discuss people with disabilities, rather than having people who are disabled discuss their own disabilities?

These are my own personal thoughts.

Michael Levy

Visit Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Emmpowerment Center

The Meaningful Life Center