Rabbi Wolpe - ADL Impressions

Vaera – A Message from Israel

Moses brings news of liberation 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.

As I write this, I am in Israel, having visited with hostage families and wounded soldiers, and seen the devastation of Oct. 7. Yet in this country, there is no kotzer ruach: Israelis have not been exhausted by the struggle, their spirit has not been crushed, and the remoteness of peace has not made them unwilling to bear the sacrifices of the moment. I asked my cab driver what he wishes me to tell the Jews of America. He said, “Tell them we are hurt but we are strong, and together, we will emerge victorious.”