Peh-Sach and Milah: From Silence to Song


Since October 7th, I have frequently found myself at a loss for words when responding to the hackneyed, “How are you?” or attempting to explain the inexplicable. Psychologists often attribute speech deficiency to an experience of trauma which decreases activity in Broca’s area, located in the left hemisphere of the brain and associated with speech production and articulation. 

Aphasia – the term used to describe an acquired loss of language that damages the capacity to speak, listen, read and write – may be caused by psychological or neurological injury to Broca’s area. Words may be uttered very slowly and poorly articulated, while speech may be labored and consist primarily of nouns, verbs or important adjectives, resembling a telegraphic character. 

A close friend of our family, Eitan Ashman, suffered a massive ischemic stroke in August 2017, leaving him with right-sided hemiparesis, memory loss, neuro-fatigue, chronic pain and aphasia, affecting his speech communication, but not his comprehension. With the perseverance of Eitan’s eishet chayil, Leora, and with the guidance of Rabbi Johnny Solomon, Eitan’s insights on the Haggadah were revised and condensed in the recently published Koach Eitan Haggadah – Empowering Seder Conversations, to enable all those struggling with speech to fulfill the mitzvah of sippur yetziat Mitzrayim, recounting our national story and collective memory through words. 

Eitan Ashman, author of the new Koach Eitan Haggadah

As I reflected upon Eitan’s struggles and search to find his words this Pesach, I realized that his personal journey is reminiscent of our national journey as explained by the Ariz”l, from “Mitzrayim” – a narrow (tzar) place of struggles – through Peh-Sach, the opening of our mouth in conversation (siach) and prayer (Sha’ar HaKavanot).

Rav Soloveitchik zt”l delineated the Torah’s three-stage process of redemption from silence to the emergence of speech. Shemot begins with Am Yisrael’s bondage and the absence of their words and sounds. Immediately before Moshe’s consecration as prophet and redeemer, sighs and cries are heard, but words are still absent. Only when Moshe came were protests voiced, climaxing with shouts of prayer by the Yam Suf, followed by melodious song. “Redemption,” stated Rav Soloveitchik, “is identical with communing… When a people leaves a mute world and enters a world of sound, speech and song, it becomes a redeemed people – a free people. In other words, a mute life is identical with bondage; a speech endowed life is a free life” (Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah).

“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” (Shemot 4:10). Ironically, it is through Moshe – the man who initially felt inadequate to speak – that Am Yisrael learns how to emancipate speech. His desert journey to initiate redemption is fraught with danger for not properly appreciating the importance of brit milah – the covenant of circumcision and of the word. Yet Moshe teaches the nation how to sing and pray and ultimately becomes a prophet of many words (see Sefer Devarim) – a microcosm of the national metamorphosis from “uncircumcised lips” to storytellers.  

Every year as Pesach approaches, we have an opportunity to redeem speech from its narrow, silent spaces of exile. After leaving Egypt and before crossing the Yam Suf, Hashem commanded Moshe to tell Bnei Yisrael to encamp by “Pi-HaChirot,” the “mouth” (peh) of “freedom” (cherut) (Rav Tzadok HaKohen, Pri Tzaddik). 

This year, inspired by the tenacity and koach of Eitan, I will try to find the words to articulate what we have experienced as a nation since the war began. I will remember and retell our story and message with meaningful sound. I will revisit the milah and sicha of the mouth of freedom on Seder night, re-experiencing redemption. And I will pray through Maggid and its concluding blessing, that we shall sing a new song of redemption and salvation – “Blessed be Hashem, Redeemer of Israel.” 


Rabbanit Shani Taragin is Educational Director of Mizrachi and the Director of the Mizrachi-TVA Lapidot Educators’ Program.

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