Torah from a Mussar Perspective: Parashat Va'era
While studying the Torah portion and commentaries this week, one piece of Torah spoke directly to my heart.
At the beginning of Parashat Va’era, God reveals Godself to Moses with a new name, the four-letter, unpronounceable name of God, emphasizing the utter ineffability and unknowability of the Divine. Yet God proceeds to give an extended, majestic speech, recalling God’s covenant with the Patriarchs, proclaiming God’s concern for the Israelites’ suffering in Egypt, and predicting their liberation from bondage. God unfolds the five-fold promise: “I will free you from the suffering of Egypt,” “I will deliver you from bondage,” “I will redeem you,” “I will take you to be My people,” and “I will bring you to the Land that I promised” (Exodus 6: 6-7), which occupies such an important place in the Passover Haggadah.
It is a magnificent, riveting speech, filled with soul-stirring language for an exhausted and despondent people. One might have expected that the people would have responded with joy, exuberance, and renewed hope.
But the text immediately tells us, “Moses told this to the Israelites, and they did not listen, because of kotzer ru’ach (narrowness of spirit) and avodah kasha (severe bondage). Why could the Israelites not hear and absorb God’s promising proclamation?
The commentators wrestle with the important expression, “kotzer ru’ach.” Rashi offers a physical explanation: “The spirit and the breath are short, and one cannot breathe deeply.” Ibn Ezra explains that “their spirit was narrowed because of long years of exile and severe oppression.” Ramban understands the term to mean that their souls were so contracted by misery, despondency, and fear of death at the hands of Pharoah that they could not hear and consider Moshe’s words. Sforno adds that the “shortness” or “narrowness” of spirit was an inability to absorb an apparently unlikely promise that they would soon be released from suffering.
Rabbi Simcha Zissel Broida, the beloved “Alter of Kelm” (1824-1898), dives deeply into the words of the Ramban and the verse itself, saying, “because of their distress and suffering, they could not listen, and so it was as if they had not heard” his words. A person in such a state “cannot set their suffering aside in order to pay attention, and so it was as if they could not hear.” (Beit Kelm, vol. 2, p. 91)
I am sad to say that this description of an anxious mind state is deeply familiar to me. That is why this piece of Torah jumped off the page and spoke to my heart.
Our text eloquently describes the constriction and suffering of the slaves, burdened with inhuman oppression, and hopelessness born of 400 years of bondage. Yet many of us — even those of us with economic privilege and social freedom, who materially have everything we need and more — suffer with anxiety as a regular companion.
I recognize the subtle descriptions in the various commentaries: the physical inability to breathe deeply, the fear so self-evident that it is impossible to interrogate it, and the inability to hear and see beyond the reality of suffering. Even in my privileged life, I know such moments, when all I can attend to is the physical impact of time pressure, the fear that I won’t get it all done, or that I won’t be good enough. In such moments, I cannot step out of the experience of contraction and anxiety to see the bright blue sky of a life filled with gifts and miracles. All I can sense is what I do not have, and all manner of bad things that seem likely to happen.
Rabbi Simcha Zissel’s description is particularly astute. The “story” of anxiety is so overpowering (“You don’t have enough time,” “You won’t get it all done,” “What lies ahead is dangerous,” “So-and-so will be angry”) that it leaves no mental space to ask: Is there counter-evidence? Are things really so bad? Is it possible that this moment will soon pass, that all will actually be well?
How can we reach for our mussar practice to draw us out of such moments to be able to hear and absorb the beautiful promises that are always present in our lives?
The opposite of “kotzer ru’ach” is an expansive openness of heart and mind, that we might call “nedivut lev” - generosity of heart and spirit, a sense that there is more than enough, that I can give to myself and others and pay attention to a wide range of beautiful experiences beyond the debilitating voice of anxiety and scarcity. In a place of nedivut lev, I can see that life is beautiful, or at least full of possibility. I can pause and breathe deeply and let the kotzer ru’ach move through me until another moment presents itself.
What allows for this kind of openness to beauty and abundance is a sense of bitachon — trust that all will be well, that I can face the challenges that stand before me, that I will be guided as I make my way through another moment or another day.
My favorite bitachon/trust text is this one:
“Blessed is the one who trusts in God, and whose hope is in God. For she will be like a tree planted by the waters, that spreads out its roots by the river, and will not see when the heat comes, but its leaves will be green; and will not be anxious in the year of drought, nor will it cease from yielding fruit.”
This text does not suggest to me that there is no suffering or lack in human life —we know that this is not true. But the prophet describes an inner state of being in which we feel nourished and accompanied, so that the challenges that come can be managed and met with grace and wisdom.
In my own practice, the easiest pathway from tension and constriction to openness and trust is often hakarat hatov/gratitude. Anxiety says, “There is not enough time, money, honor, love (or whatever it is you feel you need more of). There is not enough, and you are not enough. As a result, terrible things are sure to happen.” Gratitude, by contrast, draws the attention to all that we have, to the gifts and miracles - large and small - in every moment of life. Gratitude brings awareness of beauty and “enoughness.” In anxiety, one cannot even question the assumption of scarcity. In gratitude, everything is abundant.
I am grateful for the commentators’ reminders that there are antidotes to times of “kotzer ru’ach,” narrowness of spirit, in our own lives. We can reach for practices that support our generosity, our trust and our gratitude, until the moment comes when we can hear and see the reality of blessing in our lives.
 Exodus 6:9
 Jeremiah 17:7-8
This post was written for and distributed by The Mussar Institute, 1/18/23, https://mailchi.mp/mussarinstitute/chaverim-parshat-vaera?e=407411abbf.