Parshat Va’era

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Samuel Beckett’s searing words from Waiting for Godot seem to sum up the national mood just now. Many of my recent conversations have been shot through with sadness and exhaustion, feelings I have felt at times myself, deeply. There is a real cognitive dissonance between the life we are trying to live and the life we are actually living. The world around us is staggeringly abnormal, but as a society, we seem to have made the collective agreement to act as if it’s pretend-normal. We meet in person, hidden behind masks. We might hug, but then we back up ארבע אמות (four cubits) to secure our perimeters. At the same time, we attempt to churn through our daily tasks trying to keep everything going, all the while haunted by a sense of dread and uncertainty. The things we expect of ourselves (productivity, energy, gratitude) don’t account for how broken many of us feel. When a nearly two-year pandemic with no end in sight is not even the only problem on people’s minds, that’s saying something.

There is a phrase in this week’s parsha that speaks beautifully to this swirl of anxiety and overwhelm and crisis – קוצר רוח. I’ll leave it untranslated for now as we think through it together. Picking up the story where we left off last week: Moshe has made his first attempt with Pharaoh, trying to follow God’s instruction and free Bnei Yisrael. It did not go as planned — at least not as Moshe had planned. Instead of agreeing to Moshe’s request, Pharaoh made life much worse for the Israelites, turning the screws to make their work even harder. To the task of making bricks, Pharaoh added a step: the Israelites now must gather their own straw, before they can make the bricks. Yet their quotas remain unchanged.

More work, harsher conditions, same rigorous expectations. Sounds about right.

So in Parshat Va’era, Moshe comes to deliver a rousing message from God, saying that help is on the way, that God is in the wings ready to make everything OK, that great things are in store once they get out of there! God promises to take the Israelites as God’s own people (לְעָם — as a man takes a woman לְאִשָׁה). Yet when Moshe relays God’s promise, his words fall on ears that are not deaf but numb – the people just can’t

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא שָֽׁמְעוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה 

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה׃

And Moshe did speak to the children of Israel, but they didn’t hear him,
because of the קוצר רוח and the backbreaking work.

Rashi, the Medieval French Torah commentator, says this קוצר רוח is shortness of breath: 

כָּל מִי שֶׁהוּא מֵצֵר, רוּחוֹ וּנְשִׁימָתוֹ קְצָרָה, 

וְאֵינוֹ יָכוֹל לְהַאֲרִיךְ בִּנְשִׁימָתוֹ:

Everyone who is in distress, his spirit and his breath are short, and he cannot lengthen his breath — a person experiencing קוצר רוח just can’t catch a decent breath.

On the other hand, the 18th century Moroccan scholar, the Or haChaim, sees it as a shortness of breadth. Picking up on the other meaning of ruach, having to do with spirit, the Or haChaim argues that since the Israelites had yet to receive Torah, they were not able to hear Moshe’s message; without Torah, they were stuck in a narrow-minded place.

I am inclined to agree with him. To me, the קוצר רוח is not specifically about the breath aspect but rather about being crushed in spirit. As we saw last week, the people were in a place of severe degradation, with multiple overlapping calamities weighing on them. Seeing their children murdered, being worked to the bone, losing their connection to beloved traditions and customs… Having to gather their own straw was the least of it, but perhaps also the last straw. They were so compromised that Moshe’s hopeful message in this week’s parsha was impossible to take on board. The role of fatigue in crises of faith cannot be overestimated.

At this moment it seems hopeless, like the first half of the couplet from Godot: I can’t go on. The קוצר רוח feels insurmountable.

But here’s the second half of the couplet: I’ll go on. As is so often the case in our tradition, the seeds of redemption are planted in the soil of the harshest experiences. In Parshat Shmot, the cries of the Israelites rise up and God begins to take notice. In chapter 2, verse 25, the people have God’s full attention:

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֵּדַע אֱלֹהִים׃

And God saw the Children of Israel, and God knew.

The Midrash Aggadah reads this pasuk through the language of רחמנות, referencing that great sufferer איוב (Job). What God knew was that the Israelites saw themselves as blameless, distraught like איוב — incapable of pity for their own anguish but rather אֶמְאַס חַיָּי — sick and tired of their own lives. This is קוצר רוח; a people that has become degraded and hopeless. But God won’t leave us in that state. God’s knowing is rooted in a deep empathy for Bnei Yisrael’s plight: יָדַעְתִּי אֶת־מַכְאֹבָיו — I know my people’s pain. And God keeps the wheel turning.

The road back from such desperation is long and brutal. The plagues and their associated trauma are just beginning in this parsha. The agonies of slavery are layered over with a deep sense of uncertainty about whether and when freedom will come, and what it will cost. The Israelites will not breathe deeply for some time — as they witness bizarre and horrible things all around them. Meanwhile Moshe struggles with Pharaoh, with God, and with himself, poised between, “I can’t go on,” and, “I’ll go on.”

Luckily we know the story; we know how it ends (and doesn’t). We know that God will redeem Bnei Yisrael, and that redemption will be harder than anyone imagined. We know that it will be agonizingly incomplete, not just for Moshe but for us. We will move forward, fall back, see signs of hope and see our hopes dashed. We will be boxed in, locked down, worried and aching with loss. We will have moments when we again are gathering our own straw. We will have moments where we, too, can’t breathe, moments when our spirits are crushed. And yet we will have moments of triumph even so. Eventually things will be different. Not perfect, not necessarily even better. But a space will open up, where we can begin to hear and see and know…and breathe. And God will meet us there.

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Say it with me.

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

One thought on “Parshat Va’era

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