Vaera 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vaera

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

VaEra (Ex. 6:2-9:35)

OVERVIEW

The previous parasha ends with the Israelites suffering greatly in servitude to Pharoah; rather than heed God’s instruction to let his slaves go, Pharoah increases their workload and even refuses to give them straw for the bricks they must make. Moshe goes back to God, and in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, God reassures him that the Israelites will indeed be delivered by God’s own action. The plagues upon Egypt then commence, but Pharoah will not be moved. Eventually, God “hardens” Pharoah’s heart, and the plagues upon Egypt continue, becoming more wondrous each time.

IN FOCUS

“Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. . . .’ “

Moses reported this to the Israelites, but they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and cruel bondage. ” (Exodus 6:6-9, abridged)

PSHAT

After Pharoah increases the people’s workloads, the people complain to Moshe and Aharon that they’ve only made problems worse by speaking of liberation and freedom. (Cf. Exodus 5). So Moshe makes a poignant complaint to God, voicing his despair. God then reassures Moshe that indeed, this is the God of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, and that the people will be liberated and brought to freedom. Moshe tries to bring hope to the people, but they were too discouraged to hear it.

DRASH

We have quoted the New International Version above; the Jewish Publication Society translation is a little different:

    but when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.

The contemporary Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna, in his commentary on Exodus which accompanies the JPS translation, points out that “discouragement” or “crushed spirits” is not a literal translation of the phrase kotzer ruach. [In modern Hebrew, the phrase ‘kotzer ruach’ today means ‘impatience.’- ed.]

    their spirits crushed. . .Literally, “from shortness of spirit.” Hebrew ruach is the spiritual and psychic energy that motivates action. Its absence or attenuation signifies atrophy of the will. Failure to energize the people must not deter Moses from persevering in his mission.

Rashi compares “shortness of spirit” to shortness of breath (the words are related)- you get the sense of the people oppressed spiritually as well as physically.

Sarna seems to be implying that the people could not have heard Moshe’s message of hope, even if they had wanted to. Suffering under Pharoah’s abuses, they had no will, no imagination, no ability to conceive of a different reality. This, to me, is the lowest point of the story; not only has Pharoah tried to crush the people physically, he’s robbed them of hope.

So what does God do? God sends Moshe and Aharon right back to Pharoah, continuing the confrontation. Perhaps the message here is that physical liberation must be accompanied by a reawakening of the imagination. Each encounter with Pharoah brings him down a little bit, making him a little more human and a little less invincible. Giving the people ruach, or spiritual energy, is not something that could happen all at once, but is built up with each victory.

For us, I see a clear implication: when you meet someone who is kotzer ruach, or “short of spirit,” don’t let their initial inability to hear encouragement discourage you. If you can, show them that a different reality is possible, that the roadblocks, like Pharoah, are not invincible. You might have to try ten times, like Moshe did, or even more, but it’s worth it- a sense of hope might be the most precious thing you can give another person.

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