Parashat Va'era: Despair and destinations

The news of liberation comes to the slaves of Israel – but they are unable to hear it.

‘MOSES WITH the Ten Commandments,’ Philippe de Champaigne, 1648: Why not read them every day? (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘MOSES WITH the Ten Commandments,’ Philippe de Champaigne, 1648: Why not read them every day?
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Moses is charged by God with bringing Israel an astonishing bit of news after centuries of oppression. The news of liberation comes to the slaves of Israel – but they are unable to hear it. We are told that because of kotzer ruach – literally shortness of spirit, and because of hard bondage, the beleaguered people are impervious to Moses’s message of hope (Ex. 6:9).
What can that mean? Surely people in slavery thirst for news that they will be set free?
Rashi takes kotzer ruach as literal shortness of breath. Sheer physical exertion makes paying attention impossible. Sforno, the Italian Renaissance commentator, assumes it is “spirit” – that the people are unable to summon hope, their spirit having been crushed by the cruelty of slavery.
Related to this is the first-hand observation from the Aish Kodesh, Rabbi Kalonymous Shapira, the Rebbe of Piaseczno, Poland, who was murdered during the war. He saw his fellow Jews suffering kotzer ruach – lacking the vital spirit necessary to lift their eyes from any but the most necessary tasks. Even when fulfilling religious obligations many would act by rote, because the vital spark had disappeared due to the oppression and fear daily visited upon them by the Nazis.
These ideas are subtly different, for as there are shades of hope there are shades of despair, but threading through them is an important lesson, illuminated in the comment of the Meshech Chochmah. He relates that Moses had two messages for the Israelites: first that they would be freed from bondage and second, that God would lead them to the Promised Land.
Yet people in distress cannot envision a far-off goal. Had Moses delivered only his first message they might have listened, because the assurance of immediate freedom spoke to them. But once he continued with the possibility of entering the Promised Land, the Israelites could no longer pay attention. The possibility was too remote from their current situation. In future instructions, therefore, God told Moses to speak only of liberation – other plans would come after they were free.
This understanding fits with Rabbi S.R. Hirsch’s translation of kotzer ruach. He says it means impatience. When you are impatient, you cannot make long-term plans; you need something done immediately. A far-off future is unreal and unrelatable.
We learned this lesson from a case of individual distress earlier in the Torah. In Genesis, when Hagar runs from Sarah, an angel approaches her in the wilderness and asks, “Where have you come from and where are you going?” Hagar answers, “I am running away from my mistress Sarah (Gen. 16:8).” The Rabbis note that Hagar only answers the first part of the question and does not say where she is going. When one is in trouble or afraid, escape is the only aim. Determining the destination is possible when we feel safe.
There is a vast difference between slavery and being in lockdown during a pandemic. Yet many people I talk to muse idly but unconvincingly about what they will do when lockdown is over. Few of us are certain, because we are in the position of needing an end to our immediate distress before we can decide what our future destinations will be. In this sense COVID-19 brings both a literal and a figurative kotzer ruach – a physical shortness of breath and a shortness of spirit.
We see in the Torah that liberation is not an event but a process. It takes time to cross the sea and there are many steps along the way. We will not suddenly be freed from the grip of the pandemic, but thanks to human genius and with God’s help, we will find ourselves ready to resume our lives, with destinations perhaps greater than any we can now imagine.
The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.