By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
“Velo shomu el Moshe mikotzer ruach umei’avodah kashah” (Shemos 6:9). The Jews in Mitzrayim refused to listen to the comforting words of Moshe.
Try to imagine the scene. Moshe Rabbeinu was tending to his flock in the wilderness, when he beheld the extraordinary sight of a bush aflame. He paused to consider what was transpiring, as he wondered how it could be that the fire was burning but the bush wasn’t being consumed.
Like his ancestor Avrohom Avinu, who studied the world and concluded that it could not have come into being by itself, as the Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 39:1) relates, Moshe perceived that the Creator was announcing His Presence through the bush. He recognized that what he was seeing was a defining moment in his life.
While Moshe was standing at the bush, the Ribbono Shel Olam addressed him, stating that he was selected for a lofty mission, with a mandate to save His people.
Exultant, following his long conversation with Hashem and bearing the knowledge that the painful enslavement would soon end, Moshe went to share the good news with his brethren, who had been suffering for as long as any of them could remember. He stood before them and spoke words that they had been waiting to hear: “Higia zeman geulaschem – The time of your redemption has arrived.”
Tragically, almost unbelievably, the enslaved heirs of the avos to whom Hashem had previously appeared didn’t listen.
“Velo shomu el Moshe mikotzer ruach umei’avodah kashah.”
A family consisting of seventy people came to a foreign country due to a hunger in their native land of Eretz Yisroel. They were led at the time by their grandfather, Yaakov, and his twelve sons. Things took a turn for the worse, and as the family grew, they became the subject of increasing hatred. Eventually, they were subjugated as slaves to the king and his people.
The slaves knew who they were, where they had come from, and how they had arrived in that country. They were well aware of the promises Hashem made to their forefathers, Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov.
They were certainly encouraged by the fact that Hashem had promised their forebears that while their grandchildren would be tormented by a foreign power, they would then be released. They knew who Moshe Rabbeinu was. They knew his yichus. They knew that he grew up in Paroh’s palace.
Incarcerated people are generally desperate for any glimmer of hope. They trade rumors and stories that give them support and help them think that their freedom is around the corner. As we study this week’s parsha, we wonder why it was that when Moshe appeared and told them that the long-awaited redemption was at hand, and he expressed the four leshonos of geulah, the posuk states that the Jews didn’t listen to him.
We wonder how it could be that the suppressed people did not take heed and comfort from Moshe’s message.
The posuk says that the reason they didn’t listen to Moshe’s prophecy was “mikotzer ruach umei’avodah kashah.” Rashi explains that the posuk is saying that the enslaved people were like a distressed person who suffers from shortness of breath. In other words, they didn’t listen to Moshe because of their terrible situation and hard work.
The Ramban says that their failure to accept Moshe’s words was not because they didn’t believe in Hashem and Moshe, but because they were in terrible pain – kotzer ruach – and feared that Paroh would kill them. Umei’avodah kashah refers to the fact that their supervisors tormented them and didn’t let them pay attention to what was being said. They weren’t given the luxury of a moment’s peace to be able to listen.
Clear and direct as these explanations are, we still wonder what the people thought about as they dragged their exhausted bodies to their tents each night. Peace of mind or not, didn’t something sink in? Didn’t they wonder about Moshe and what he foretold? When they lay their emaciated bodies down to sleep, didn’t they think that perhaps there was something to Moshe’s prophecy? Why didn’t they give what he said a chance? Maybe, just maybe, there was something to what he had said.
Moshe Rabbeinu addressed the Bnei Yisroel with a Divine message of redemption. The four expressions of geulah refer to a physical and spiritual redemption from the tumah of Mitzrayim. Moshe quoted Hashem saying that he would rescue the Jews and adopt them as his nation. He would take them from the golus of avdus and raise them to the highest levels of kedusha. They couldn’t accept Moshe’s nevuah.
Man is blessed with three levels, nefesh, ruach and neshomah. The lowest level is nefesh, which refers to man’s physical attributes. Ruach relates to matters of speech. Neshomah is the highest spiritual level of man.
Perhaps we can thus understand the posuk that explains why the Bnei Yisroel were not heartened by Moshe’s prophesy. Their avodah kashah, hard physical labor, caused an inability to listen, as the physicality of nefesh overpowered the spirituality of neshomah, and caused a weakness in the attribute of ruach.
Their avodah kashah prevented them from studying Torah and being involved in the spiritual aspects of life. With their spiritual side impoverished, their spiritual ruach was impacted.
Their spirit was dead. With no spirit, there is no room for life.
When the spirit dies, the body becomes numb. With no spirit, there is neither stirring nor hope.
A person who has become enveloped in apathy, depression and despair cannot be reached before having his spirit restored.
In order to hear words of tanchumim, and to be able to understand what the novi is telling you and to anticipate freedom, a person has to have ruach.
As Rashi says, one who is short of breath cannot accept words of comfort. That shortness is brought about by a deficiency in Torah and avodah (tefillah).
This is the explanation of the statement of Chazal that says, “Ein lecha ben chorin ela mi she’oseik baTorah.” The free man is the one who is engrossed in Torah study. One who spends his time learning Torah becomes receptive to freedom, growth and happiness. One who studies Torah is blessed in all his bechinos. To the degree that a person subjugates his nefesh to his neshomah, he is able to gain happiness, pleasure and ruach rechovah.
The Mishnah teaches, “Kol halomeid Torah lishmah zocheh ledevorim harbeh – One who learns Torah merits many blessings” (Avos 6). One of the rewards of a lomeid lishmah is “kol ha’olam kulo kedai hu lo.” The literal understanding of the Mishnah is that the entire world was worth being created just for him.
Darshonim expound on that reward. What type of reward is it for him that the whole world was created for him? To answer that question, they explain the Mishnah to mean that the entire world is “kedai,” worthwhile, to such a person. He enjoys every experience. He lives every moment to its fullest and derives maximum satisfaction from each encounter, because Torah uplifts and expands a person to the point where every moment of life is worth celebrating and taking seriously.
Like every posuk in the Torah, this posuk is recorded for posterity to instruct and guide us. The words and their lessons remain relevant for eternity. The tale of the people too washed up to hear the words they had been awaiting for more than two hundred years is relevant to us in our day.
Jews live in a state of constant anticipation, always awaiting good news. We all carry a sense of expectancy, viewing the events around us through eyes that look beyond them, our ears listening for the footsteps of the redeemer, whose arrival will signal that our troubles are over.
The sun shines brightly, though at times its rays are concealed by clouds. We have to possess the ability to see beyond the clouds to the light and warmth of the sun.
Few things are more disturbing than encountering bitter people. Surrounded by opportunity and blessing, they insist on concentrating on the negatives. Such myopic people remain locked in by the inability to see beyond the sadness that envelopes them. They are unable to dream of a better day or of working to achieve lasting accomplishments. They can’t acknowledge greatness in others, nor do they possess the self-confidence to achieve anything themselves.
There is so much goodness in our world. There is much to be happy about and proud of, yet too many are consumed by pessimism, concentrating on the bad news and failing to see the entire picture.
Why the negativity? Why the constant harping on what is wrong without appreciating the good?
The process of learning Torah and avodas hamussar is meant to train us to see the tov. We are to acquire an ayin tovah that allows us to discern the good in what we have and to appreciate the goodness that abounds. In order to be good Jews, we have to be happy with the present and positive about the future. If we aren’t, it is an indication of how much we are lacking in the study of Torah and mussar. We have to know that everything that transpires is brought about by Hashem, for a higher purpose that we can’t always explain.
Torah and mussar keep a person who studies them active, optimistic, energetic and positive. They shape an individual into a mentch, a person who respects others and is worthy of respect himself.
The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh (6:9) explains that the reason the Jews in Mitzrayim were not able to listen to Moshe was because they were not bnei Torah. Torah broadens a person’s heart, he says. Had they been bnei Torah, they would have been receptive to Moshe’s message. We, who have been granted the gift of Torah, have no excuse for not being open to hearing the words of the Moshe Rabbeinus of our generation and those who seek to improve our lots and help us prepare ourselves for the geulah.
Kotzer ruach is brought about by not learning Torah. Elevating ruach to its highest form by learning Torah doesn’t only add to the power of speech, but enhances every aspect of life. As Dovid Hamelech says, “Toras Hashem temimah meshivas nofesh.” Torah restores the sunken nefesh of the person, as well as his energy and joy.
All through the ages, we have been victimized by angry, desperate people. Yet, we have endured. How have we battled back? What is the secret that enables us to remain strong and confident and successful despite having so many enemies and Kalashnikovs aimed at us?
Through learning Torah, we lift our spirits. Our neshomah becomes strengthened and overrules the nefesh. As our enemies try to snuff out our ruach, we respond with more chiyus, more energy, and more toil.
When Hashem asked Moshe to tell Paroh the message of deliverance of the Jewish people, Moshe demurred. “The Jewish people didn’t listen to me. How will Paroh?” he asked (Shemos 6:12). Rashi states that this is one of the ten instances in the Torah where a kal vachomer is used.
The question is obvious. The posuk explains that the Bnei Yisroel didn’t listen to Moshe because of kotzer ruach and avodah kashah. However, Paroh, who was safely ensconced in his comfortable palace, didn’t have those limitations, so why was Moshe convinced that Paroh wouldn’t listen to his arguments?
If we understand kotzer ruach as referring to a lack of Torah and the madreigah of ruach, then the argument is quite understandable. The Bnei Yisroel, heirs to a golden tradition, were weakened in their study of Torah and thus unreceptive to messages of freedom and spirit. Paroh, who never benefitted from this tradition and never studied Torah, would surely be unable to be sympathetic to a tender humanitarian message of opportunity.
We cry out in Selichos, “Veruach kodshecha al tikach mimeni – Hashem, please don’t remove Your holy spirit from me.” We can explain that the prayer is also a request that our ruach, spirit, remain holy and blessed, infused with Torah.
We seek to merit the brachos of the novi Yeshayahu (59:21), who prophesied, “Ruchi asher alecha udvorai asher samti beficha lo yomushu mipicha umipi zaracha umipi zera zaracha mei’atah ve’ad olam – May that spirit of Hashem that rests upon the lomeid Torah never fade from our mouths, from those of our children, and their children.”
We are currently in the teshuvah and growth period known as Shovavim, given its name by the acronym of the parshiyos we lain during this period, from Shemos through Mishpotim. As we read these parshiyos about Klal Yisroel’s descent into Mitzrayim and redemption, we are enabled to escape our personal prisons and enslavement.
Repentance is brought about through acts of charity, fasting and affliction. Ameilus baTorah, intense Torah study, also has the power to cleanse and purify. Shovavim is as good a time as any to add fervor and zeal to our learning.
We have to breathe in deeply and fight for each breath, because we are living in an era when ruach is in short supply. We exist in a state of mikotzer ruach.
We have to work harder to lift our nefesh, ruach and neshomah to higher and broader levels so that we can breathe easier, safer and longer, meriting the geulas hanefesh and geulas haguf bekarov through Torah.
We are in the final moments before the arrival of Moshiach. The chevlei Moshiach are difficult and painful. We await the day when they give birth to the end of the siege of this exile.
Reb Aron Pernikoff spent most of his time at the Montreal Community Kollel. Though he didn’t enjoy an easy life, he exuded a certain tranquil joy, a loftiness and chashivus.
Reb Aron would quote the posuk in Tehillim that tells of the tragic descent of the Bnei Yisroel into golus after the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh. “Al naharos Bavel, shom yoshavnu gam bochinu bezochreinu es Tzion – We sat and wept by the rivers of Bavel when we recalled Yerushalayim. Al aravim besocha talinu kinoroseinu – We hung our harps in the willow trees which grew at the river.”
He would ask, “Where did the exiled Jews have harps from?” When people go into exile, barely escaping with their lives, they take with them only bare necessities. “How did they have harps with them?” he would wonder.
He would answer, “A Yid knows that no matter where he is going, no matter how bleak the landscape ahead is, there will always be reason to sing. They took their musical instruments along in anticipation of those opportunities.”
There are always things happening in our world that give cause for shirah. Let us be on the lookout for them and appreciate them when they come to pass.
We are still exulting in the release of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin. Those who have followed Sholom Mordechai’s story in these pages over the last decade know that he used his years behind bars as an opportunity to sing in the darkness of golus. In his writings and with those he conversed during that trying period, he joyously and repeatedly pledged allegiance to the ideals of eitz chaim hee lamachazikim bah, demonstrating that his daunting nisayon hadn’t dimmed his ahavas Hashem or his hope for a brighter future.
When we learn this week’s parsha and read the posuk of “Velo shomu el Moshe mikotzer ruach umei’avodah kashah,” let us ensure that we aren’t guilty of “velo shomu el Moshe.” Moshe’s word is the Torah. It is enduring and binding, and listening to it means keeping our ears tilted to hear the sounds of imminent geulah and open to the besoros tovos that are all around us.
Let us not grow so despondent about our situation that we can’t hear and see the good that is prevalent. Let us see the good in all that Hashem does. Let us celebrate the goodness experienced by others and ourselves. Let us look for the good and appreciate it, instead of being cynical and negative.
Doing so will cause us to be happier, more productive, and ready for the geulah, may it be bekarov.