Say therefore to the Children of Israel, “I am the Lord. I will free you from the labours of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you…I will bring you into the land that I promised…” But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they did not listen to Moses, their spirit crushed by cruel bondage. (Shemot 6:9)
Bent over double,
back near to breaking,
trying to evade the searing whip.
Skin burned by sun rays,
droplets of sweat moisten the sand.
Hands move mechanically,
heads dull and wretched,
spirits are stunted and spent.
A shadow looms up,
and a bold voice proclaims:
“I speak in God’s name:
He will save you from slavery, and
unshackle your bonds.
You are His people;
He will shepherd you home.”
Slowly, spines straighten,
leaden eyes squint
while cracked lips curl skeptically.
Then toil resumes:
bent over double,
back near to breaking,
trying to evade the searing whip.
The JPS commentary, the Etz Hayim, reflects on the phrase “their spirit crushed by cruel bondage” which literally means “because of impatience and hard work.” The words for “impatience” are “kotser ru’ach” which actually mean shortness or stunting of the spirit. So the Etz Hayim asks whether it was because the bondage was so hard and mind-numbing, that the enslaved people were totally unable to even hear or imagine what redemption could be like, or whether it was because they were aware that only patience and hard work would achieve freedom, and their spirits were too stunted by slavery to want to make the effort. The Etz Hayim also suggests that the people could not listen to Moses because he had grown up in the palace and then lived a free man in Midian. He had not suffered the torturous slavery that had crushed their spirit.
In Itturei Torah, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg*, a discussion is cited between R’ Menachem Mendel of Kotsk and R’ Menachem Mendel of Warka. The Kotsker Rebbe asks how God’s previous assurance to Moses that the people “will hear your voice…” (Shemot 3:18) fits with our current verse, that the people “did not listen to Moses…“. The Kotsker wonders how it could be that God’s words were not being fulfilled. The Warka Rebbe’s reply (based on careful attention to the prepositions used) is that although the people heard Moses’s voice, they could not absorb the words he was saying, because of their spiritual impoverishment.
In a blog post on Vaera http://www.rebjeff.com/1/post/2013/01/vaeira-when-we-cannot-be-joyful.html, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser points out that people in distress rarely grasp the full import of what is being said to them. He quotes the saying in Pirkei Avot (4:23), “R’ Simeon son of Elazar said, “Do not appease your fellow in the hour of his anger, nor comfort him when his dead lies before him, nor question him in the hour of his vow, nor see him in the hour of his disgrace.”” Rabbi Goldwasser notes that sometimes even the most eloquent words cannot be heard.
In a further commentary on this parasha http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5313, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes that many of the great medieval commentators attempted to understand the evident despair of the Israelites. He cites Rashi (1040-1105) who noticed that the Hebrew words for “crushed spirit” are the same as for “shortness of breath.” Thus he teaches, “If one is in anguish, his breath comes in short gasps and he cannot draw long breaths.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson notes that today, breathing deeply is a recommended way to release tension. He says, “The weight of slavery was so onerous, the pain of lost hope so searing, that our very breath was constricted.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson cites Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) concentrates on the interpretation of “impatience” and deduces that “Israel did not hearken nor pay attention to the words of Moses, as their spirit was impatient because of the length of their exile and the hard labor which was recently put upon them.”
The Italian commentator Sforno (1475-1550) suggests that the chasm between the hard reality in which the people existed, and their dream of a different life, was too wide to entertain any hope: “It did not appear believable to their present state of mind, so that their hearts could not assimilate such a promise.”
Finally, Rabbi Shavit Artson brings the teaching of Rabbi Hayim ben Attar (1696-1743) who, says Rabbi Shavit Artson “understands that an infusion of new hope can make suffering even harder to tolerate. The closer liberation comes, the more difficult it is to tolerate one’s oppression: “The people had good reason for becoming impatient at their fate because when Moses had come, he had given them hope that their liberation was close at hand. This had given them a new and broader perspective on life.” ”
He notes that all these commentators bring different insights which “illumine the nature of despair: that it can be physically devastating, that it can preclude accepting the good news of redemption, and that hope can itself make a bad reality even less acceptable.” He adds, “There is yet one more comment to make about despair, ancient or contemporary. There are insights that can only be accessed from a place of despair. There are times when only by hitting rock bottom, being forced to abandon our own self-centeredness or sense of being in control, that we can become open to real help from beyond. Only when we despair of ourselves providing ultimate comfort can we then reach beyond ourselves for consolation and for help.”
Rabbi Shavit Artson concludes, “Abandoning the pretense of our own self-sufficiency can open doors to a deeper sustenance. Releasing our own delusion of power and control can permit us to flow with currents far more profound than our own. Turning our destiny back to the One who actually writes the script can be both liberating and a source of deep illumination.
“By feeling the fullness of despair, the Israelites became open to the possibility of liberation. Perhaps we – too – need to invest less energy in distracting ourselves from our sorrows, and open ourselves to their embrace, and to our consequent transformation.”
*Aharon Ya’akov Greenberg, (1900 – 1963) was an Israeli politician who served as a member of the Knesset from 1949 until 1951, and again from 1955 until his death in 1963. Born in an area of the Russian Empire which is today Poland, Greenberg was a member of the Young Mizrachi and Mizrachi Pioneers youth movements. In 1934 he made aliyah to Mandatory Palestine and was elected to the first Knesset on the United Religious Front list. He is perhaps best remembered for his authorship of “Itturei Torah” which is a collection of wisdom and ethics from the Torah, on the Parasha, Chagim and Megillot, drawn from a wide range of sources from Hassidut to Mussar. He published these weekly in the newspaper HaTsofeh, under his pseudonym, “Y. Halevi”. After his death, these columns were collected and published in book form in seven volumes.