Ibn Ezra

Ibn Ezra: Soul and Mouth (Shemot)

The Torah Text

As the epic story of the liberation from slavery begins, the man tasked with leading the Israelites resists his mission. “Please, O God, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

God is undeterred, and appoints Moses’s brother Aaron to speak for him. Ibn Ezra, like many other commentators, wonders how this affected their sibling dynamic. Was Moses happy or insulted to have his brother become his public face?

Ibn Ezra’s Teaching

 ודבר זה אין זה גרעון למשה רק מעלה גדולה כי אהרן יהיה דומה לפה שיוציא דבור הנשמה שאינו נראית כמו המלאכים שאינם נראים כי אינם גוף. והנה ידמה משה כמעלת המלאך וזהו ואתה תהיה לו לאלהים. והנה אין אלהים בכל המקרא רק השם הנכבד או מלאכיו הקדושים. כי על ידם יראו מעשה השם בארץ. או קדושי מטה העושים משפטי אלהים בארץ

Now Aaron’s appointment as spokesman did not entail Moses’ demotion. On the contrary, Moses’ status was thereby elevated. Aaron was merely an instrument, similar to the mouth which brings forth the words of the invisible soul which, like the angels, cannot be seen because they are incorporeal. Moses’ station was thus similar to the station of an angel. This is the meaning of “And you shall be to [Aaron] in Elohim’s stead” (Exodus 4:16). Now Elohim in Scripture does not refer to anything but God the glorious or God’s holy angels or the holy ones below who execute God’s justice in the world. (Translation Strickman and Silver)

Reflections for the Path

Ibn Ezra notes that the soul, which is invisible, communicates messages through the mouth. Similarly, angels, who are invisible, communicate messages via prophets. Moses is acting the part of a soul/angel, with Aaron his mouth/prophet. Even though in some ways Moses will be diminished, less visible than if he were giving the speeches, nevertheless he is actually elevated, as souls and angelic beings (and God for that matter) communicate but remain unseen.

We learn as an aside that for Ibn Ezra the term elohim, which most often translates as “god”, also will often be translated as “angel” instead. On rarer occasions it refers to judges.

I love this imagery of the soul and mouth partnership. It brings to mind the hidden and mysterious elements of creative work (soul) and the concrete, say-it-out-loud or get-it-on-the-page aspects of creative work (mouth). Both are necessary when dealing with creative acts, whether you are writing a novel, developing a marketing strategy, or rescuing an oppressed people.

Which comes more naturally to you, being the soul or the mouth of an operation? Which do you have more experience with?

For more on Abraham ibn Ezra:
1. Read my introduction.
2. Listen to ibn Ezra’s opening prayer poem for his Torah commentary.
3. Explore the five paths, ibn Ezra’s introduction to his Torah commentary.