The Midrash darshens the pasuk, “Marpeh lashon eitz chaim," as teaching that Torah can heal speech. The exemplar of this phenomenon is Moshe Rabeinu, who early in his career pleaded with Hashem that his difficulty speaking should disqualify him as a Navi, but who closed his life with the rousing address that is Sefer Devarim.
But why prove the point from Sefer Devarim, spoken almost a full forty years after the giving of the Torah? Moshe Rabeinu had surely been speaking Torah for years and years before that, as almost every parsha in chumash begins, “Vayidbeir Hashem el Moshe leimor…”
Maharal explains that Moshe’s speech defect was not a shortcoming, but was actually due to the very high spiritual level he was on. Where does the power of speech come from? The Targum translates the expression “nefesh chaya” as “ruach m’malela” – a spirit of speech. Mankind is uniquely endowed with the ability to speak because mankind alone has a neshoma which is connected with a physical body. The neshoma gives rise to thought and emotion; the mouth articulates the ideas. An animal has a body without a neshoma, and therefore cannot speak. A baby has a body, but it’s neshoma is not fully manifest, and therefore it cannot speak. Moshe Rabeinu’s body was so pure and holy that it lost its physicality; Moshe Rabeinu had a neshoma without a physical body (in the normal sense) and therefore he could not speak.
But, asks the Shem m’Shmuel, the gemara often refers to spirits speaking, the Nevi’im tell us of angels speaking -- if these beings without bodies could speak (obviously one could read all these gemara’s allegorically, but that’s not the Sm”S’s approach), why couldn’t Moshe?
The Shem m’Shmuel answers that there are two types of speech. Angels and spirits can speak to other spiritual beings using spiritual speech. A Navi has the gift of being able to overhear these spiritual conversations, e.g. hearing the shirah of the angels. Those of us listening with physical ears are excluded. We are attuned only to the speech of other physical beings, speech which emanates from a physical body and can therefore be heard by another physical body.
We can now answer the question we started with. For forty years Moshe spoke Torah and taught Torah – but what kind of speech was that? It was spiritual speech like that of the angels! It was speech that only the dor de’ah, the generation who received the Torah, who ate man, who drank the be’er, who were surrounded by the ananei hakavod, could hear because they themselves were on an exalted spiritual level.
It was only now, at the close of the forty year journey through the desert, that Moshe had the opportunity to address a new generation, a generation prepared to engage in the physical labor of conquering and settling Eretz Yisrael, a generation listening not only with their neshomos, but with physical bodies and ears as well. It was Moshe’s ability to address even this generation using normal speech that proved, “Marpeh lashon eitz chaim,” that Torah had the power to engender this ability to communicate.
What do we gain from this beautiful analysis? Two points, one philosophical, one practical. Firstly, the philosophical: Torah is not about transcending reality for the sake of some otherworldly existence; it’s about bringing the transcendent into our world. Marpeh lashon – Torah transforms the person and the physical world into an environment that allows for spiritual communication to occur. Secondly, the practical: it is easy to speak Torah to a lofty select group of listeners who are attuned to the spiritual messages being transmitted. It is far more challenging to teach Torah to regular people involved in the regular day to day challenges of life. The greatness of Moshe Rabeinu was that his speech could reach not only the dor de’ah, but could reach the next generation as well. He did it not by watering down the message, but by keeping his focus on marpeh lashon eitz chaim, delivering true Torah wisdom which engaged his listeners and assured his voice of being heard.