In his message to the King of Edom to request permission to pass through his land, Moshe provided background information to provide him with the context of their journey. This background included a brief encapsulation of the story of the Exodus including a verse recounting the prayer that the Children of Israel engaged in. “The Egyptians treated us and our ancestors badly; we cried out to the Almighty, and He heard our voice” (Bamidbar 20:15-16). Although according to its simple interpretation the phrase “He heard our voice” obviously refers to the acceptance of their prayers, R. Moshe Schreiber (1762–1839, known as the Chatam Sofer), writes that the Torah’s use of term is ambiguous enough to allude to a secondary interpretation. It says that He listened to their voices when it could have specified that He listened to their prayers. It is well known that the Jewish people maintained their unique ancestral language while in Egypt. In Rabbinic literature, this is not seen as stemming from a nostalgic motivation nor an inability to acculturate to a new society but rather from a spiritual-moral desire to maintain the legacy of their forbearers. Although speaking one language or another doesn’t make one more or less righteous or religious per se, it may nevertheless serve as an educational tool to accustom a group of people to see themselves as a culturally distinct entity in a larger milieu. This could in turn enable them to distinguish themselves in a moral and religious way as well. The phrase “He heard our voice,” according to R. Schreiber, alludes to the presence of this dynamic in Egypt. The Exodus didn’t come only because of prayer but also because of merit of the voices of the Jewish people that were still talking Hebrew.
The history of the Hebrew language and the ways the Jewish people has related to it throughout the centuries is an extensive subtopic of Jewish history in its own right. An obvious turning point in that history is the rebirth of the language in the modern-day State of Israel. In the last two centuries, however, knowledge of the Jewish tongue has waned among some of the more religious sectors of the Jewish community. They saw concentration on the Hebrew language as one of the defining features of the Enlightenment secularist forces, and encouraged use of Yiddish instead. An objective view reveals, however, that familiarity with the Holy Tongue deserves no less of a central and important role than ever before in our history. Maimonides writes that learning the Hebrew language is a “light mitzvah,” meaning a mitzvah that receives scant attention because it is perceived as insignificant – but a mitzvah nonetheless. R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707 –1746), the prolific Italian born author, kabbalist and rabbinic renaissance man, is a recent great Torah scholar, if not the only, to author a book devoted to Hebrew grammar. Most importantly, Hebrew is the language of our national heritage, the Torah, and our prayer book and prayer service. It is, of course, not realistic to expect contemporary Jewry to abandon all other languages and speak only Hebrew like our forefathers did in Egypt. The closer that we come, however, to living up to their legacy through our familiarity with Hebrew, the deeper and more effective Jewish lives we will live.