Moshe’s attempt at redeeming the children of Israel was not a simple task. Pharaoh’s consent was not Moshe’s only problem. Making headway with his enslaved brethren was no less difficult. The burden of slavery was so overwhelming and the impression it made on the slaves’ souls was crippling: “And Moshe spoke this to the Israelites, but they did not heed Moshe out of shortness of breath and hard work (ume’avodah kasha).’ (Exodus 6:9)
Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman – Spain 13th century), I think, captures the plain sense of what Moshe was up against: “It was not because they did not believe in God and His prophets, but rather they could not listen because they were overburdened, and even though they knew that they might be free afterwards, they feared being killed by Pharaoh’s sword.” (adapted)
A 2rd century midrash asserts a different root cause for the inability of the slaves to identify with Moshe’s message. Here “avodah kasha” is understood to mean not “hard work” but rather “idol worship” (“avodah” can also mean “service”): “Rabbi Yehuda ben Batera says: Behold it says: ‘They would not listen to Moshe out of shortness of breath and hard work.’ (Exodus 6:9) Can you imagine a person receiving good news and not being happy… your master sets you free and you are not happy? If so, what could the Torah [possibly] mean when it says that ‘they would not listen to Moshe?’ It [must] mean that it was hard for them to give up their idol worship. As it says: ‘Caste away every one of you, the detestable things that you are drawn to and do not defile yourselves with the fetishes of Egypt.’ (Ezekiel 20:7) and immediately afterwards it says: ‘But they defied Me and refused to listen to Me… But I acted for the sake of My name.’ (20:8-9)” (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael Piskha 5, Horowitz-Rabin ed. p. 15-16)
To the author of this midrash, the influence of Egyptian bondage extended beyond the physical. It colored the spiritual mindset of the slaves as well. They were so deeply ensconced in Egyptian culture that they had difficulty separating themselves from deeply held alien beliefs that they had assimilated in Egypt. As a result, they could not “hear” anything that Moshe said to them! To illustrate this point, the midrash brings verses from the prophet Ezekiel who imagined this to be the major problem of the slave generation even though he lived long centuries after the Exodus.
Some sages characterize Judaism as a battle against idolatry. The message of this midrash is that idolatry somehow dulls the senses from having clear perception. It stalls one’s critical facilities. The above midrash asserts that idolatry caused the slave generation to be deaf to Moshe’s message. We, too, are not immune to idolatry. [Post]moderns can also get caught up in all sorts of “isms” which have the ability to lead people astray, to do and think unfortunate ideas with potentially bad outcomes. Rabbi Yehuda ben Batera’s words should be considered a warning that true freedom requires us to be ever vigilant in order to guarantee that we do not become enticed by the world’s ever-present idolatrous allures.