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Joshua Rabin
Joshua Rabin
A Changemaking Jew

Kotzer Ruach and the Pedagogy of Hope

One Term, Many Interpretations

“The greatest antidote to fear is grounded hope.” 

-Adam Grant

The opening of Parashat Vaera is the lowest point in the Exodus story.    

Last week, Moshe bursts onto the scene, gives the iconic call of “Let my people go” to Pharoah, and fails so spectacularly that Pharoah commands his servants to “make the work heavier” upon the Israelites (Shemot 5:9).  The Israelites’ enslavement was like that terrible joke about the difference between the optimist and the pessimist, where the pessimist says, “It can’t get any worse,” and the optimist says, “Oh yes, it can.”

And this fear is confirmed when Moshe, after speaking to God, shares the impassioned statement of God that the Israelites will be taken out of Egypt, and yet experiences, as Aviva Zornberg writes, “a paralyzing jolt of failure” (The Particulars of Rapture, 82).   The parasha states:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר מֹשֶׁ֛ה כֵּ֖ן אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה׃

The translation of this verse is, “when Moses told this [God’s promises] to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moshe, due to their kotzer ruach and harsh labor” (Shemot 6:9).  In one sense, the term kotzer ruach is a simple translation, as kotzer comes from root the meaning “short,” and ruach means “spirit” (a favorite USY term).   And yet “shortness of spirit,” as Rashi once said, is the kind of term that demands explanation.

Rashi interprets the term kotzer ruach contextually and argues that “if one is in anguish their breath comes in short gasps and they cannot draw out long breaths,” implying that the Israelites were too tired after days of harsh labor to even hear what Moshe was saying.   Taking a psychological approach, the Italian commentator Seforno says that the Israelites did not listen because “it did not appear believable in their present state of mind, and thus their heart could not assimilate such a promise.”    In both cases, the daily life of slavery made the Israelites physically and psychologically unable to hear and believe God’s promises.

I suspect that a combination of these commentaries is what led the late Nahum Sarna to translate kotzer ruach in his Torah Commentary on Sefer Shemot to mean “the Israelites’ spirits were crushed.”   Sarna writes that, “ruach is the spiritual and psychic energy that motivates action.  Its absence or attenuation signifies atrophy of the will” (The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, page 32).To put it another way, the Israelites could not hear God’s promises because the physical and mental toll of slavery caused them, at this point, to cross a line between holding out hope and surrendering to hopelessness.  This week, I think about my professional life and our world through the lens of this week’s parasha.

Peaks and Valleys of Disappointment

I was supposed to teach these commentaries on kotzer ruach at USY’s International Convention (IC), which was scheduled to take place this week in Washington D.C.    My plan was to teach this text to the staff over Shabbat, and then do the same text study with the USYers on Tuesday, so that I could see how two completely separate groups saw the same text (the way my teachers taught me when I was a USYer).   

But I will not be teaching this text to either group, as last week USY canceled our convention due to the rising omicron variant.  Our organization spent this past year creating a fortress of COVID-19 protocols so that we could run this event.  But in the end, it was not enough.   

When I was a teenager, I counted down the days and weeks to the next USY convention (in the camping world, this is sometimes what people call “10 for 2”).    The anticipation mattered to me almost as much as the event itself.  Two decades later, I know most teenagers feel the same way.

As I braced myself for others to receive the news about IC’s cancellation, all I wanted to do was reach out to teens through my computer and say, “It’s ok to be upset.  And this too shall pass.”  However, the problem raised by COVID-19 is that now a teenager can wait for weeks for an event only to find that it is canceled at the last minute.  The crushing disappointment, at that moment, is bad enough; the possibility of the disappointment being repeated a second time could be enough for them to avoid ever coming back lest they be disappointed again.  We’ve been here before (and might be here, again).

For this reason, I feel an obligation to rediscover what it means to teach teenagers how to hope.   

The Pedagogy of Hope

Hope is a virtue that does not get the attention received by its cousins, among them resilience, grit, and a growth mindset.  But ultimately, they all come from the same family.  In Hope in a Democratic Age, my teacher Professor Alan Mittleman argues that hope is an underappreciated virtue that must be strengthened like any other muscle.  In the Tanakh, Mittleman writes that,

“Hope, as a quality of life lived in the present, endows life with both depth and transcendence; it enhances the vertical axis of life…hope also points towards the future. It awaits or anticipates the fulfillment of the promises of God in concrete time. Hope, in this sense, moves along a horizontal axis.

Hope is the value that teaches us to move forward and aim higher simultaneously and in equal measure.  Turning back to this week’s parasha, Moshe was at a crossroads with the Israelites because they could not imagine a God interested in saving them, and thus all they wanted was for their enslavement not to get worse.   When Moshe comes onto the scene, the latter gets worse, and the former seems too far away to imagine.    

At a time when a new COVID-19 variant rages, we have a responsibility to teach one another that there have been moments over the past year where we could see a world “without” this virus and feel a sense of normalcy, and ways in which each of us found opportunities to live with another day, week, or month with uncertainty. 

Like most of you, I am sick of having to live with it, but I know that I can because I’ve been doing it for two years.  During this pandemic, I welcomed a new daughter into my family, taught my other daughter to ride a two-wheeler and my son the magic of legos, learned to play the guitar, read the entire Harry Potter series and Robert Moses’ The Power Broker (better late than never), and completed two triathlons.  Bragging aside, as much as I’d sometimes like to give up, I know that there is a world beyond COVID-19, and I will spend every day I’ve got during it trying to come out better on the other side.

God is Moshe’s agent of hope; when things do not work out the first time, God gives Moshe new strategies to ensure that the second and third times are different than the first.  In education, Vicki Zakrzewski of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley argues that teenagers can be taught how to hope by constantly encouraging learners to set clear goals, develop multiple strategies, and stay motivated.  We must do these things because, as Zakrzewski notes, “Success…requires creative ways to overcome these obstacles, not avoiding them altogether.”  

Teaching Hope in Uncertainty

After I took a day or two to be sad, I turned my attention to the opportunities this new world continues to provide for USY and others, while reminding myself that if I give up hope the only people that lose out are the Jews I seek to serve.  If I cannot hope, I cannot do anything.

Hope is not something that can be measured or tested; it is not a value that is easy to identify when you see it.  But lest we end 2021 and start 2022 without hope, perhaps all of us can take a lesson from this week’s parasha and refuse to give up hope.

I know that I won’t, and I hope that you won’t, either.

About the Author
Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Senior Director USY. Josh received his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2011, and is a recipient of the Wexner Field Fellowship and the Ruskay Fellowship in Jewish Professional Leadership. Josh lives on the Upper West Side with his wife, Rabbi Yael Hammerman, and their children Hannah, Shai, and Ella. You can read more of Josh's writings at www.joshuarabin.com
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