God summons Moses and tells him of the plan to free the Israelites from slavery and lead them to the Promised Land, but “when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” (Exodus 6)
The Hebrew for “spirits crushed” is kotzer ruach. The word ruach can in fact mean spirit, wind or breath. Kotzer comes from the Hebrew meaning shortened or stunted. And so the medieval commentator, Rashi (eleventh century), suggests that the Israelites did not listen. Why? Because they experienced “shortness of breath.” They were tired and could not catch their breath. The physical toll of years of servitude had made the Israelites so tired they could not even hear when Moses tells them they will soon go free. This makes sense. Sometimes it is impossible to listen to others, or even to hear wonderful news, when one is tired.
Physical health influences the mind. Exhaustion colors our mood. Good news, and bad news, is lost on those who are utterly tired. They cannot hear because they only want to rest. Is this why the plagues were necessary? They were not so much about punishing the Egyptians. Instead their purpose was to awaken the Israelites to God’s majesty and power. Such is Rashi’s understanding of this phrase.
Another commentator, Ramban (thirteenth century), suggests that this phrase should be read as “shortness of spirit.” He argues that the Israelites were impatient. They did not listen to Moses and could not hear God’s promises because they were impatient. This too is a truism. When people are impatient, thinking about whatever else they might have on their agendas they fail to pay attention to the important words standing right before their eyes.
How many times have we said to ourselves, “I wish he would hurry up and finish talking. I am already late for my dinner date.” We might then miss some important news. How many times do we skim over our emails and text messages while waiting impatiently at a red light only to discover we missed the important bit of news at the end of the email chain?
Impatience and exhaustion interfere with true listening.
I prefer however to read this phrase as “their spirits were stunted.” Why? Because their suffering made them unable to hear anything but their own pain. When we are experiencing pain, we are unable to pay attention to other people’s tzuris or sometimes, are even unable to hear good news. The words can be about our very own redemption and we still cannot hear them. Moses offered the Israelites words that foretold their own salvation and yet they could not see beyond their own pain.
It is not that they were stubborn and would not listen but instead that they could not hear. Their suffering and pain obscured their hearing.
The question still confronts us. How can we see beyond our own tzuris, and our pains, and hear the words that might offer our own salvation? It should not require miracles, or plagues visited upon others, to open our eyes to wonders and ears to saving words.
Perhaps it is as simple as hearing our own breath. Perhaps it is as obvious as opening our spirit to God’s plan. All we need to do is lengthen our spirits and expand our hearing.
Someone could indeed be standing right before us and offering us words of salvation and redemption.