Speech Impediments: Words of Justice

Today Amanda Gorman became the youngest poet to read at a presidential inauguration, reading her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. If you have not listened to it you should:

“The Hill We Climb” reads, in part:

The loss we carry

A sea we must wade

We braved the belly of the beast

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace

And the norms and notions of what just is

Isn’t always justice

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it

Somehow we do it

Some how we have weather and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished

On a day filled with tons of anticipation, anxiety, and emotion, her hopeful poetry won the day. A reluctant prophet, like Jonah, her vision of justice asked us to join her in our needed repentance and rebuilding.

Reading more about Gorman I learned that like Biden, she had a speech impediment as a child. Biden had a stutter; Gorman had difficulty pronouncing certain sounds. She told NPR’s Steve Inskeep that her speech impediment was one reason she was drawn to poetry at a young age. As I have explored in the past, there might be a connection between Biden’s stutter and his long career in public life. Regardless of the nature or cause, a speech impediment is highly stigmatized disability. It is easy to imagine them both silenced due to their speech impediments. Through this lens we see that Biden and Gorman have tremendous courage to step up and speak to and for this nation. What is the nature of this courage?

When Moshe is called to be God’s messenger, he resists saying, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words…. I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10). From this the Rabbis concluded that Moshe had a stutter.  Rashi  explains k’vad peh, “heavy of mouth,” and k’vad lashon, “heavy of tongue,” by which Moshe describes himself, as stuttering. Rashi translated it into medieval French word balbus, stuttering or stammering (from which comes the modern French verb balbutier, to stutter).

In Shoftim we read about the establishment of the court system and the most famous quote:

Tzedek Tzedek-Justice, justice shalt you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. ( Deuteronomy 16:20)

Why the repeating word, “Justice”? Most commonly it translated to assume that it is emphatic. As to say, “Justice you will surely pursue”. But, I think this reading overlooks the speaker. As we know, Moshe had a speech impediment. This is the text recording his stammer.

If this is true, why does the Torah represents Moshe’s stuttering in print at this moment? Maybe it has something to do with the pursuit of justice itself. Biden’s leadership is founded on his empathy born out of personal hardships. Gorman’s poetry is born out of her working on pronouncing certain sounds correctly. We all know bullies prey on people who are different or weak. To truly pursue justice we need to connect to our own experiences of being marginalized. Biden, Gorman, and Moshe share the experience of overcoming the challenge of communicating which is the root of their pursuit of justice.  Their courage is founded on a profound strength of leadership founded on vulnerability.

We should never make fun of people just because they are different than us. We can disagree, but there is a never a reason to be a bully. We must always strive to understand each other, especially those we do not understand. To work for justice we need to have empathy for those who are experiencing hardship and those that are silenced.  Justice we shall surely pursue. We cannot just accept the status quo. Inspired by the remarkable words of Gorman, Biden, and Moshe we all need to come together to do it and play our part in making process in this unfinished nation.

-Also see Stammering Justice

-Also see Revisiting Stammering Justice

-Also the Stuttering Club: Empathy and Leadership


1 Response to “Speech Impediments: Words of Justice”

  1. 1 Arthur Schwartz January 20, 2021 at 10:41 pm

    Arthur Schwartz here.

    I’ve enjoyed each of your posts during the past few months but this one really lifted me up.

    With gratitude.

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