Parshat Vayera: Exodus
In Exodus 6:6-8, God tells Moses to stand before the people of Israel and tell them of their upcoming redemption.
The language God uses is incredibly dramatic; God’s own outstretched arm will deliver the people from Egypt with great judgments and God will finally fulfill His promise of the Land of Israel to Abraham’s offspring.
The Torah reports that Moses followed God’s command dutifully: Vayedaber Moshe ken el Bnei Yisrael, “Moses said thus to the Children of Israel.” One would imagine that the Israelites would jump for joy after hearing about their upcoming redemption. Yet, surprisingly, the people react negatively. The Torah reports: Velo shamu el Moshe mikotzer ruach ume’avodah kasha — “They did not listen to Moses due to shortness of ruach (wind) and hard labor.”
Knowing that the term “ruach” differs in meaning depending on context, biblical commentators debate the significance of the expression kotzer ruach, “shortness of wind.” Furthermore, commentators address why this attribute would dampen the people’s excitement over Moses’ declaration. Two answers, one of Rashi and one of Yalkut Reuveni, provide explanations that speak powerfully about our human experiences in the world and provide an important lesson to us as readers of the Torah.
First, the prominent 11th-century exegete Rashi links Israel’s “shortness of wind” to their “hard labor.” Understanding the word “ruach” as connoting breath, Rashi believes that the back-breaking labor the Israelites suffered led to their exhaustion; they were literally short of breath. They rejected Moses because they did not have the mental capacity to appreciate anything he was saying due to their physical fatigue.
We all live busy and, at times, chaotic lives. Much like the ancient Israelites, it can be hard for us to pull away from our work and preoccupations to reflect on some of the important issues surrounding us. Rashi’s comment speaks to the very human tendency of getting wrapped up inside our own heads. His comment reminds us to cherish the opportunities whatever opportunities we have to take a step back and reflect on our lives and the world that surrounds us.
Yalkut Reuveni, a 17th-century collection of rabbinic and kabalistic interpretations on the Torah, suggests another meaning to the expression kotzer ruach, “shortness of wind.” Yalkut Reuveni suggests that the proper translation of ruach is “spirituality.” It is written that “The people saw that they did not have within them any good or meritorious actions.” In other words, the people felt that they were not too short, spiritually, to be worthy of redemption. They rejected Moses, not because they were too tired, but because they felt undeserving.
At times, we too can feel that we are not doing enough or have not accomplished enough. We can swing to the extreme of perfectionism, like the Israelites, and say, “I haven’t been perfect, so what’s even the point of even continuing? I haven’t behaved appropriately so I don’t deserve any benefits or respite.” Yalkut Reuveni reminds us that the redemption from Egypt and our current lives are not all-or-nothing propositions. We are fallible, but that does not mean that we do not deserve the best.
May we be able to take the lessons of Rashi and Yalkut Reuveni to heart, making the time to catch our breath and reflect, and also see that we are worthy and deserving, even while recognizing our human imperfections.
Rabbi Jared Anstandig is rabbi of the Orthodox Community at the Michigan Hillel and the rabbi of the Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyan.