When Moshe relays Hashem’s promise of redemption at the outset of the parsha the response is anti-climactic. The Jewish people do not listen to Moshe. The pasuk gives a very specific reason that Moshe’s message is not received by the Jewish people. They don’t listen to Moshe due to kotzer ruach and avodah kasha (Shemot 6:9) – they are short of breath and experiencing hard work. But isn’t that exactly why they should have clung to Moshe’s words? Did they not dream of just the salvation Moshe was offering? Why is this an explanation for why they were unable to accept Moshe’s message?
The Meshech Chochma explains that we need to look more carefully at exactly what Moshe relayed to the people in order to understand their inability to latch on to what Moshe was saying. Moshe relayed a utopic vision of being free and in control in our own land, perhaps not unlike the vison dreamed about in HaTikvah, Israel’s national anthem. The Jews were under terribly stressful conditions and were myopically focused on getting out of their misery. They just wanted to know when the forced labor and terrible conditions would stop. Hearing about how we would be led into our own land to rule ourselves was just too far outside their field of vision. They couldn’t listen to a master plan to realize their destiny. When we are stressed and in crisis, we have a hard time being inspired or envisioning the future.
Part of what made Moshe such a good leader was his ability to see a vision of the future and perseveres through all the challenges of the 40 years he led the Jewish people, pushing forward despite the many setbacks. Parenthetically, this can be a paradox of leadership. Leaders must have this vision, but they are not always able to share the full vision with those they lead. When people are in crisis, they need to hear about how the crisis will be dealt with and what support they will receive.
On an individual level this is an important point as well. Are we able to vision in the midst of a crisis? In his introduction to the Eim haBonim Smeicha, Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal writes about the vision of actively returning to Israel despite his challenging surroundings and the fact that his perspective was very unpopular with Orthodox leaders at the time. How was he able to raise himself above what was going on around him? How did this Munkatcher Chassid write such a visionary masterpiece in pre-war Hungary?
We also have our own kotzer ruach in our daily lives. On top of the constant stress and an overflow of information in today’s society, we continue to hear and think about hostages still in captivity after 100 days, continued war in Israel and antisemitism around the world. Things move rapidly and we spend much of our week just trying to keep up with new developments and being able to put out fires all while feeling emotionally exhausted from so much loss, pain and sadness.
We need to find ways to alleviate the kotzer ruach or we will not only be unable to create the vision, like the Jewish people in Egypt, we won’t even be able to listen to the vision for our future when it is presented. A few years ago I heard from Dr. Tal Ben Shahar, the Israeli professor and international expert on happiness. He suggested a number of ways to decrease our stress. He explained that it is important not to deny our emotions but to accept and process them so that they will not overstay their welcome. He also shared research showing that giving reduces stress. There were so many powerful stories of giving in the first weeks after October 7th and there is so much giving that is still happening in Israel and abroad. This is not just necessary and important for the recipients, but it is also a way for the givers to feel a little more in control and a little less in crisis.
We live in a time when the vision of Hatikvah, while not simple, is realized. But what is most inspiring is that unlike the Jewish people at that time in Egypt, people in Israel connect deeply with the vision of what the Jewish people in our land can be. Despite intense crisis, war and inestimable loss, every single person I speak to who has been on a mission to Israel these past weeks comes back inspired and amazed by the strength and Emunah of the Israelis they meet. Let us all continue to take steps to handle our own kotzer rauch in healthy ways and also to continue to strengthen one another in the vision that Moshe shared all those years ago. Am Yisrael Chai!