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A Short-Winded Short Vort

Written by d fine

Our sedra opens with HaShem’s promise to redeem the Jewish people, via the five expressions of redemption. However, when Moshe repeats these promises to Bnei Yisrael, they do not listen to (/believe) Moshe, because of their ‘kotzer ruach’ and the hard labour (6:9). ‘Kotzer ruach’ is normally translated as ‘shortness of breath,’ and so the pasuk means that Bnei Yisrael were suffering from such harsh slavery that they did not believe Moshe’s message; they did not have the time not the willpower to digest it. After receiving this knock-back from the Bnei Yisrael, Moshe says to HaShem ‘if already Bnei Yisrael do not listen to me, how will Pharaoh listen to me?’ (6:12), which Rashi comments is one of the ten kal vachomers (lit. a fortiori) in the Torah. But upon closer inspection, there is a problem with Moshe’s claim. Moshe is claiming that if his own people did not listen to him when he told them that the slavery is going to end, then Pharaoh will certainly not listen to him. The problem is that this assumption does not follow on. We know that the only reason Bnei Yisrael did not listen to Moshe was because of the kotzer ruach…, and Pharaoh was certainly not subject to the pains of slavery. So what was Moshe’s claim? We will cite three approaches.

The Ikkar Sifsei Chachamim[1] answers that Moshe simply did not know that the reason the people did not listen to him was because of the kotzer ruach…and so from his perspective this was a valid claim. The only problem with this is an implication from Rashi. Rashi (citing the Midrash[2]) says that this is one of the ten kal vachomers in the Torah. According to the Ikkar Sifsei Chachamim’s explanation, in reality this is not really a kal vachomer at all (because of the kotzer ruach question); Moshe just thought that it was a kal vachomer because he was unaware of the reason for Bnei Yisrael not listening to his message. So on to our second answer; the Ralbag. The Ralbag answers that the words kotzer ruach do not refer to Bnei Yisrael here, but rather they refer to Moshe himself. Thus, the pasuk is saying that the reason Bnei Yisrael did not accept Moshe’s message was because of their hard labour and Moshe’s kotzer ruach; his lack of enthusiasm / excitement, and general oratory skills. According to this, Moshe’s claim is indeed a kal vachomer; if his oratory skills were not good enough to spur on Bnei Yisrael to follow his message, they would certainly not succeed in front of Pharaoh. This is why Moshe adds to the claim ‘and I am defective in speech;’ this was indeed part of his claim. However, this approach has its problems too. Firstly, it is not so simple to split up a pasuk in saying that kotzer ruach refers to Moshe, but avodah kasha refers to the Bnei Yisrael, when the pasuk itself suggests no change of subject. Similarly, according to this understanding, the kal vachomer itself has a question on it; HaShem had already arranged (4:14) that Aharaon would speak to Pharaoh, so why should Moshe’s oratory to Bnei Yisrael have any indication on the success of Aharon’s speech to Pharaoh? Therefore, we shall suggest one final answer, albeit rather novel in its understanding of the pasuk.

The word ruach has two meanings; it can mean breath (or spirit), or it can mean a direction.[3] Perhaps we can suggest that the meaning of kotzer ruach means a shortness of direction. In other words, Bnei Yisrael had been slaves for two hundred years; generations had been born into slavery and had been slaves to Pharaoh all their lives. They were so used to slavery that they did not see an end to it. This was their shortness (lack/short-sightedness) of direction; they did not see a way out of slavery. And subsequently they were not able to digest Moshe’s message. According to this explanation, this was therefore Moshe’s claim and kal vachomer: if already Bnei Yisrael, who should want to see an end to the slavery, have accepted the status quo of being slaves (their kotzer ruach), what chance do I stand against Pharaoh, who wants to keep the status quo as it is by keeping the Jewish people as slaves.

Therefore, this week’s theme is the importance of not becoming trapped into a ‘nothing’s ever going to change’ attitude. Perhaps no poorer victim of the inability to accept change is Pharaoh himself. It was due to his inability to change and admit the truth of HaShem’s existence, that he saw his empire collapse around him, and his people rebelled against him.[4] In stark contrast to Pharaoh’s inability to break out of his self-imposed value system, is his daughter. Pharaoh’s daughter broke away from the value-system of the Egyptians and converted to Judaism; she did have the ability and strength of character to decide to accept a change in her life. In fact, the gemarra[5] tells us that she ended up marrying Calev; HaShem declared that ‘the one who rebelled against the counsel of the spies should come and marry the daughter of Pharaoh, who rebelled against her father’s idolatry.’ This was a great match; both Calev and the daughter of Pharaoh had the ability to look outside of their environments and make independent, correct decisions. In Calev’s case, it was selecting to report positively about the Land of Israel rather than follow the evil counsel of the other ten spies. Whilst for the daughter of Pharaoh, it was looking past the shallowness and spiritual baseness of Egyptian society to find truth and meaning. In fact, we see this trait of not accepting ‘norms’ in another episode in the life of Pharaoh’s daughter. When Pharaoh’s daughter sees Moshe’s cradle floating in the Nile, HaShem made a miracle and allowed the arm of Pharaoh’s daughter’s to extend more than humanly possible to be able to reach the cradle.[6] But why did she try and reach the cradle in the first place if she knew that it was too far under the normal rules of nature? Again, this stemmed from her attitude of not necessarily accepting norms of society (even natural norms); she thought that ‘even though the cradle seems too far away, I am going to make every effort possible to defy this distance and reach the cradle.’ And reach the cradle she did.

Often, we have been part of a certain lifestyle or we are used to certain things happening, and we do not see a way for them to change; and so we mould our hopes and expectations around these norms. For example, I was once chatting with a cab driver in Israel, and I asked him what his goal was in life? ‘Simple, to be a millionaire,’ he responded. ‘Fair enough,’ I said, in my best Israeli accent, ‘but what are you going to do then?’ His response was rather interesting. ‘As a millionaire, I am going to own the cab company and I am going to be the one ordering the cab-drivers where to go.’ I realised that this person had been so used to working as a cab-driver, that his dreams and aspirations had been constricted to the world of a cab company. A millionaire can sit at home all day; he does not need to order cab-drivers nor own a cab company, but this person had built this into his aspirations in life, because he was so used to working as a cab driver, he knew nothing else.

Another fine example of someone who did not accept the status quo in life is Rabbi Joseph Eckstein. After losing four children to Tay-Sachs disease, Rabbi Eckstein threw himself into the study of genetics and founded Dor Yesharim; a hugely successful international organisation which minimises such genetic diseases. In fact, none of Rabbi Eckstein’s children born subsequent to the founding of Dor Yesharim, suffered from Tay-Sachs.

The first Jew was Avraham Avinu. Chazal tell us that he was called Avraham Ha’Ivri because he took one [monotheistic] ideological stance, whilst virtually the whole world took the other [polytheistic] outlook. Avraham was not afraid to stand up for what he believed in, and was prepared to break out of all the norms that society had taught. Similarly, the first mitzvah Bnei Yisrael receive as a nation is Kiddush hachodesh; sanctifying the new moon. The word chodesh (month) is related to the word chiddush, meaning something new. Our first mitzvah involved Bnei Yisrael being given the ability to create newness in this world; the ability to break out of pre-existing norms and rise above them. Therefore, in summary, we should try to avoid getting sucked in to the ‘it’s never going to be any different’ attitude, but rather realise that we are not limited by norms.

Have a great Shabbos.

[1] Ikkar Sifsei Chachamim letter Kuf (on Rashi 6:12). It is his question too.

[2] Midrash Bereishis Rabbah 92:7

[3] As in Yirmiyahu 49:32

[4] See Tosafos gemarra Shabbos 87b ‘ve’oso’

[5] Gemarra Megillah 13a

[6] Rashi Shemos 2:5 ‘es’

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