(This blog was first posted on January 10, 2010.)
And Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, from kotzer of ruach and from avodah kashah. (Exodus/Shemot 6:9)
Moses asks Pharaoh to give the Israelite slaves a leave of absence to spend three days in the wilderness worshiping their god. Pharaoh responds by accusing the Israelites of laziness and giving them extra work: they must collect their own straw to mix with clay, and still make the same quota of bricks. The slaves complain to Moses, who then complains to God that now the people are even worse off than before. This week’s Torah portion,Va-eira (“And I appeared”), opens with God reaffirming the divine plan to rescue the children of Israel from Egypt.
Moses passes on this communication to the Israelite slaves, but they do not listen to him. Why not? The brief explanation ending the sentence in Exodus 6:9, “from kotzer of ruach and from avodah kashah“, can be translated in many ways. Below are some possibilities; pick one from each list to make your own translation.
kotzer = shortness. being stunted. despondency. impatience.
ruach = wind. spirit. breath. motivation.
avodah = labor. service. ritual. worship.
kashah = difficult. heavy. stubborn. severe.
Some translators choose a physical interpretation, writing that the Israelites did not listen to Moses out of shortness of breath and hard bondage (Robert Alter, following Rashi). How can you listen to someone promising an unimaginable future when you’re working so hard that you’re panting? Ramban says physical exhaustion made the people impatient and sapped them of the strength to hope.
Other translators take a psychological approach, writing that the Israelites did not listen to Moses because of a constriction of the spirit (the Zohar) and because of the heathen service which weighed heavily upon them (the Targumim, according to Elie Munk). Their suffering was so continuous that they were reduced to animals who could only think about their daily physical needs; they did not have enough human spirit to imagine anything else. Lacking imagination and believing themselves powerless, they paid homage to the Egyptian gods of their slave-masters. This idol worship also prevented them from listening to any communication from their own god.
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, in The Particulars of Rapture, wrote: “To hear is to open oneself up to vulnerability, change, contingency.” Pharoah the hard-hearted cannot consider even the idea of change, so he refuses to hear out Moses. Pharoah afflicts his Israelite slaves with the same deafness, by making their lives so hard that they cannot stop and listen to any revolutionary ideas. Thus Egypt, which in Hebrew is called Mitzrayim, “Narrow Places”, is the place of constriction for both master and slave. It is the place where people are stunted, cut short—“kotzer”—from the freedom of thought that make us human.
In Kabbalistic terms, the children of Israel are stunted in the ruach level of soul. Like animals, they exist from day to day with only the nefesh, the level of soul that animates the body. They have neither time nor energy to access their ruach and neshamah levels of soul. (The neshamah is the soul level where one can hear one’s calling and receive inspiration. The ruach is the level where one is seized by the drive and motivation to seek that calling, to do something new.)
In the story of creation at the beginning of Genesis, the ruach—wind or spirit—of God hovers over the face of the waters. Throughout the Torah, certain humans are seized by the irresistible power of the ruach of God, which turns them into prophets or madmen, or perhaps both. A human being’s own ruach may not be as enormous as God’s ruach, but it is still a motivating force that can be ignored only by rigorous denial.
Pharaoh is the king of denial. He does not listen to the word of God because his ruach is stunted; he refuses to believe that change is unavoidable. The children of Israel do not listen to the word of God because their ruach is imprisoned by continuous suffering; they refuse to believe that change can happen to them.
I’ve been in that constricted place, too. I’ve cried over more than one unbearable situation in my life, unable to believe that I could do anything about it or that it would ever change. But each situation did change. Sometimes I heard a different inner voice, and I found a way out. Other times the change happened without an action on my part, by the grace of God, and all I had to do was to respond, to gird my loins and go with it.
But what about when you’re still trapped in the suffering? How do you find the voice you haven’t been hearing? Does it take a temporary break—a deep breath, a real Shabbat, three days in the wilderness—to hear the voice of freedom? Or do you need someone, or something, to lead you out of your Egypt whether you’re ready or not?