In this week’s Torah portion, we meet a frustrated and dejected Moses. God’s reluctant leader of the Jewish people cannot convince Pharaoh to free the Israelites from bondage, no matter how emphatically he proclaims, “Let my people go.” Pharaoh doesn’t budge; in fact, things get worse for the people each time Moses asks. The Jewish people seem paralyzed by fear and depression, further frustrating Moses.
The cruelty of Pharaoh and his taskmasters increases. The suffering of the Israelites grows and grows. God instructs Moses to go to the people one more time and impress upon them that God will redeem them with great miracles from their harsh labors and cruel taskmasters. God will bring them to the land of their forefathers in freedom (Exodus 6:8). But when Moses tells them this, nothing happens. They won’t even listen to his words, the text explains, “their spirits crushed by cruel bondage” (Exodus 6:9)
The Hebrew of the verse is illuminating: “spirits crushed” (mikotzer ruach) literally means a breath cut short. The great medieval commentator Rashi explains, “One who is troubled in his wind [ruach] and his breaths are short [ketzarah], and he cannot [take] a long breath.”
Imagine the sense of suffocation, imagine a feeling of drowning — the helplessness, the awareness that what you need most of all — air to breathe — you cannot have.
Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, means “narrow place.” With the Israelites we get a sense that the walls are closing in, that they are being crushed and pressed to the point at which they can barely breathe. They have given up on hope, on life, on redemption, on God.
When you stop breathing, you die, and the Israelites are mikotzer ruach (crushed), their breath is short and labored. Their spirit, if not their bodies, is nearly extinguished.
Rabbi Levi Yitzak of Beredichev, the great Chasidic master, taught that in each and every moment our breath tries to escape from us, but the Holy One, in great mercy, watches over us and does not let it depart. This is the meaning of the verse, “With each and every breath praise God” (Psalms 150:6).
If every breath a person takes is a prayer, an expression of thanksgiving to God for our very lives, then the fact that the Israelites can take only short, shallow breaths indicates they have lost faith and hope in God’s redemption. That is why they won’t listen to Moses; they don’t think he can deliver. In this moment of ultimate crisis for our people, breath for life, breath for prayer was almost gone.
And so what must God — through Moses — do? God has to do something that will quite literally take their breath away — something that will be so profound, so inspiring that they will awaken from their despair, breathe deeply and know in that moment that they are alive and in the presence of God’s redemptive power. What better medium to impress the people than a miracle, or maybe 10?!
Many of us have been taught that the purpose of the 10 plagues (which make up the balance of this Torah portion and the next) was to convince and ultimately punish Pharaoh for his cruel treatment of the Israelites. But that was not the only reason — maybe not even the main reason. The reason for the plagues was to wake the Israelites from their stupor, through signs and wonders to remind them of God’s redemptive power. The plagues were God’s way of telling the Israelites that God had not abandoned them.
When the Israelites encountered such a moment, when frogs rained down from heaven, when rivers turned to blood, when locusts blotted out the sun, there was only one possible response: to stand in awe, breathe deeply, and through that breath praise God, the source of life.
When people come to me for counsel or comfort, they, too, are in a place of narrowness not unlike the Israelites in bondage, mikotzer ruach, spirits crushed. They feel that every avenue to repair a relationship or health or sustenance is closed off to them, that they are out of options, constricted, helpless … can’t draw a breath. Often the best advice I can offer is what we all so often forget to do in those moments: Take a deep breath, and just breathe. Remind yourself that you are alive. You are a living human being with unlimited potential to overcome life’s burdens. When each and every breath we take is a prayer thanking God for life, even when that life is burdened and difficult, then every breath is a miracle and a reminder of God’s redemptive power. Sometimes the best advice is — just breathe.
Hey, it worked for Moses.