“You will be liberated! God hasn’t forgotten you! The Almighty has heard your cries!” declares Moshe as he speaks to the Israelites in the beginning of the book of Exodus( parshat VeEra). Pretty good news you might say. Did they cheer and run to their homes to pack up their paltry possession? Did they breathe a sigh of relief and hug one another thrilled that their ordeal would soon be over? Were they revved up and ready to go? No, no, no- they looked back at Moshe with empty eyes and a shrug. The Torah tells us that “ ve- lo shamu el Moshe mkotzer ruach omavoda kasha.” (They didn’t listen to Moshe because of a contraction of their spirit and all the hard work.” This phrase “kotzer ruach” has been translated as anguish or disappointment, but neither of these translations catch the heavy weight of a people so long oppressed that the eternal hope, that tiny little flame, that often buoys a people through difficult experiences is barely a flicker.
This “kotzer ruach”, this constriction of the spirit is often seen with oppressed people. So tired and worn, so used to their status that redemption seems light years off, so why pack up, why fool yourself with false hope, just keep working. But “kotzer ruach” can also be manifest as impatience or indifference. In this chapter in Exodus (VeEra), God through Moshe brings plague after plague both as a message to the Israelites and as a message to the Egyptians. “Dam”-Blood was the first plague. The waters of the Nile were turned to a bloody cesspool- unpotable and unable to sustain life. For a full seven days, we are told, the Egyptians dug around the Nile for drinking water. They didn’t picket Pharaoh’s palace, they didn’t hold work stoppages or have sit down strikes demanding that Pharaoh release the Israelites and relieve them. The plagues continued- blood, frogs, lice, disease, total darkness and pestilence and we don’t hear the cries of the Egyptians. They swatted the frogs from their tables, scratched their bites, sat isolated in the thick darkness and survived each and every discomfort. It is only when God sends that most horrific of plagues- the killing of the first born that “there was a great outcry since there was no house where there were no dead”( Exodus 32, 30)
The Egyptians- perhaps from “kotzer ruach” themselves, tolerated pain and discomfort and environmental devastation and only cried out when their first born was killed. The first born- the promise of a future. You won’t live forever but there in your arms you hold your particular mix of DNA and nurture and looking down at that sweet face you also see your chance for immortality. Then with the death of the first born, finally the Egyptians cried out.
The Torah tells us that God sent those plagues and that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and that this was a grand and orchestrated deliverance. These Israelites, battered and broken were redeemed with a outstretched arm, with wonders and miracles. The power of the Almighty was able to take a people out of slavery, out of Egypt and expand their spirits so that they could move onward as a people.
Now we’ve created our own plagues. We’ve managed to fill the air and earth and water with so many chemicals and toxins that the planet is heating up. We’ve shown indifference to the poor and plighted. Hatred and intolerance are thriving. The children are dying. In Flint Michigan, in the Middle East and on the streets of our cities our first born children are dying. This time we have no Moshe to lead us, we’ve got no time for “kotzer ruach”, anguish, disappointment or impatience, our imperative is to act. A people, all people are waiting to be liberated.