“Shortness of Breath and Hard Works”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, opens with the Al-mighty’s very moving declaration to Moses regarding His intentions to save the Jewish people from enslavement in Egypt.

G-d announces (Exodus 6:5-8) that He has heard the cries of the Jewish people resulting from their enslavement. He has remembered His covenant, and will take the people out from under the burdens of Egypt. The Al-mighty will rescue the people and redeem them with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. Declaring His special mutual relationship with the Jewish people, G-d says that He will take the people to Him and be their G-d, so that they shall know that the L-rd is their G-d, who takes them out from under the servitude of Egypt. Finally, G-d promises that He will bring the people to the land that He promised to give to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and will give it to the people of Israel as an inheritance.

In Exodus 6:9, the Bible tells us the reaction of the people when Moses relates this very hopeful message to the children of Israel, “V’lo shahm’oo el Moshe mee’ko’tzer roo’ach, oo’may’ah’vo’dah kah’shah,” the people did not heed Moses, because of shortness of breath and of hard work.

Rashi, as well as most of the other commentators, explains that the people’s failure to heed Moses’ words wasn’t due to their lack of faith, but to the extraordinarily difficult physical and emotional circumstances under which they labored in Egypt. Moses, however, in his humility, blames himself by saying (Exodus 6:12) that he is “ah’rahl s’fah’tah’yim,” of uncircumcised lips, and that his inability to explain himself properly causes the people not to listen to him. If that is the case, argues Moses, “V’aych yish’m’ay’nee Pharaoh?” How will Pharaoh ever listen to me?

The Mechilta 21:5 cites Rabbi Judah ben B’taira who says: Is it possible that a person is told favorable tidings and does not rejoice? “A son has been born to you!” “Your master is letting you out of slavery!” and you do not rejoice? Why then, does the verse say that they did not heed Moses’ words? Suggests Rabbi Judah ben B’taira, it was simply too difficult for the people to abandon the idolatry to which they had become accustomed.

The Yalkut May’am Lo’ez adds insightfully that, when Moses and Aaron first told the people that G-d had remembered them (Exodus 4:30-31), the people listened, because they were told about the impending redemption without being told that they would have to abandon their idolatrous ways. But now, when Moses told them in the name of G-d that G-d is taking them to be His people and that He will be their G-d, they did not accept this, for they had become so accustomed to idol worship for so many years.

Two contemporary commentators point to subtle differences in the meaning of the phrase “kotzer ruach,” shortness of breath. The Meshech Chochmah asserts that when a person suffers greatly, the pain is so vivid that they simply cannot process any promises of a bright future and salvation. The only thing that the people of Israel could possibly respond to under those circumstances was a promise of freedom that would instantly result in relief from their back-breaking toil. Therefore, G-d once again instructed Moses to take the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt (Exodus 6:13).

On the other hand, the Sefat Emet interprets “shortness of breath” not physically but spiritually, not due to hard work, but due to the inability to hear and absorb such concepts. Having experienced extensive exposure to the impurities of Egypt, their Jewish souls no longer possessed the spiritual receptivity to hear what Moses had to say.

It is told that the great Chofetz Chaim was once sitting with some of the religious leaders of Radin and complained that the Jews of his generation were of insufficient faith. At one point during the discussion, one of the leading rabbis of the Yeshiva of Radin said to him: Why are you surprised? Recall the reaction of the Jews in Egypt when Moses came to them. Those Jews still remembered their holy forefathers and knew for certain that the exile would not last for more than 400 years. And yet, their hearts were stuffed up by the incredibly torturous work, causing them to sink to the 49th level of impurity. Our generation is, after all, so many generations further removed from our forefathers and our exile doesn’t seem to have any end. Is it any wonder that our faith is diminished?

Once again, we see many parallels to contemporary times. Many of our co-religionists have been trapped by the blandishments of our times, by the mystique of contemporary idols, like Mammon. They are surrounded by a culture that worships youth, physical beauty and is sexually saturated. We are not only distanced from our forefathers, but many of our young people have no idea who Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were, let alone what they stood for. Is it any surprise that they cannot hear the message of G-d that is being directed at them?

The challenge of the Jews in Egypt was great. The challenge of the Jews in the time of the Chofetz Chaim was profound. But, they survived. What, pray G-d, will be with our generation, who not only cannot hear, but does not know how to listen?

May you be blessed.