January 20, 2012
“Shortness of Breath” Then and Now - D’var Torah Vaeira
This past week I was talking with a good friend and colleague when he said, “John - I’ve been really irritable lately. Everything people do and say bothers me.”
I asked if anything particular was wrong. “No. Everything is fine,” he said. His marriage is happy and strong, his children well, and his work meaningful.
“Yet, I feel so impatient all the time. Things that normally don’t bother me now do.”
Knowing the way he works I suggested that he was exhausted. “Perhaps,” he said, “but I don’t feel any more tired than normal!”
That’s the rub. My friend’s “normal” isn’t normal at all. Though he does what many rabbis do, such work can be overwhelming. When I spelled it out for him, he acknowledged that I was probably right.
Certainly, the rabbinate isn’t the only occupation that exhausts its practitioners. No one is immune.
In this week’s Torah portion Vaeira (Exodus 6:2-10:1) we see the deleterious impact that relentless demands can have upon us.
The pivotal scene puts Moses talking with God a second time. He and Aaron had just appeared before Pharaoh to demand the people’s liberation. But, every request turned Pharaoh’s heart harder and he increased their work-load and their sufferings.
God responds by promising the people the greatest reward:
“I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Lord.” (Exodus 6:6-8)
Then, we read, Vay’da-beir Moshe ken el b’nai Yisraeil v’lo sha-mu el Moshe mi-kotzer ruach u-mei-avodah kashah.” “When Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, mi-kotzer ruach” (Lit. “because of shortness of breath”). What is its meaning?
Rashi comments that “the people didn’t accept consolation [i.e. Moses’ message of their impending redemption] for they were too much under stress.” All hope had left them. Abraham ibn Ezra translated mi-kotzer ruach to mean that the people were “impatient,” short-tempered and fatigued and incapable of sensing a higher purpose in their lives.
Though we are no longer “slaves” in this classic sense, our schedules can control us, people to whom we’ve given over too much influence of our lives can oppress us, obligations we’ve taken on can weigh us down, and the legitimate needs of others (our spouses, children, parents, friends and colleagues) can burden us.
When we feel over-burdened our spirits are afflicted and our creativity is diminished.
This past week in another blog I reflected on the work of Daniel Pink in
A Whole New Mind: Why Right-brainers Will Rule the Future
and the importance of our nurturing our solitude as a means in stimulating the creative impulse and restoring balance in our lives. I refer you to that blog now.