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A Royal Speech for a Royal Night

04/04/19 14:30:58


A Royal Speech for a Royal Night

Several years ago, the movie, “The King’s Speech”, about the speech impediment of King George VI and the man who helped him overcome it, the maverick Australian Lionel Logue, attracted a lot of acclaim, interest and awards across the world.

Notwithstanding the criticisms about the historical veracity of some of the characterisations, the movie is a riveting portrayal of the profound humiliation George 6th suffers as a result of his stutter.

David Seidler who wrote the script became interested in George because he too was a stutterer. While stuttering may have many complex causes, in the movie it is explicitly linked to early traumas; in George’s case the abuse he suffered at the hands of a nanny and the embarrassment he felt he felt in front of his family. In Seidler’s case he associates it with the emotional trauma of the Shoah in which his grandparents were murdered.

Stuttering causes enormous pain and public shame to the stutterer, a pain that is accentuated for the King because of his very public role. Watching the movie I couldn’t help but think of one of the earliest recorded instances of a public figure who suffers from a speech impediment: Moses. When he is called by God to lead the Jewish people, he is agonised by the thought that he will have to become a public speaker, a voice for the oppressed: “Please, my Lord, I am not a man of words…for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue” (Exodus 4:10).

God provides Moshe with an ostensible solution; Aharon would be his spokesman. Despite this by the end of the drama it is Moshe who confronts Pharaoh on his own and who becomes an increasingly confident and eloquent advocate for his embattled people.

By the time the people leave Egypt he is an orator and poet of distinction leading them in the brilliant song at the sea: “Az yashir...” At the end of his life he delivers one of the longest and most powerful speeches on record: the Book of Devarim or Words. The man who stumbled with words has become the consummate word-smith.

We are not told how Moshe transforms himself from stutterer to orator, but we could surmise his brother Aharon has something to do with it. Perhaps Aharon is his coach and therapist, his Lionel Logue. This could be supported by the words of the Midrash when Moshe says: “Just as you rejoiced when I rose to greatness, so I rejoice in your greatness.”

We don’t know what caused Moshe’s impediment although the Midrash links it to an incident in Pharaoh’s court. One could surmise that Moshe suffered an early trauma in the Egyptian palace. After all, he was a child torn from his mother and brought up in an alien environment. The defiance of Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter (against her own father, Pharoah), could have cost him a lot and caused him to suffer at the hands of the other children in the Egyptian court just as George 6th suffers at the hand of his brother.

Ultimately the movie is about the triumph of George over his own handicap. The story of Moshe too is the ultimate story of triumph; one of how we can turn adversity into opportunity, weakness into greatness. It is the story of Moshe and of George 6th; it is the tale of everyone who has overcome a disability. And of course it is the epic of the Jewish people which we celebrate at Pesach time.

Interestingly it is speech that is central to the pivotal celebration of Pesach – the seder meal. On Pesach night we open our mouths (Peh-sach – literally means the mouth that speaks) to tell a story. We orally transmit the adventure to the next generation. We are encouraged to speak at length (and hopefully eloquently) about the history of our people. This is a night in which the speech flows as liberally as the wine. It is also a night on which we are all royalty, enjoying our status as God’s chosen people. So we all get to make a king’s speech – it’s called the Haggadah!

May our words at our Sedarim in a fortnight’s time be wise, interesting and articulate.

Shabbat Shalom


Mon, 18 January 2021 5 Shevat 5781