Friday, January 12, 2018

Getting our Spirit Back - Parashat Va-era - January 12, 2018

I am the Eternal One.
I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians
I will deliver you from their bondage.
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.
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 Eternal One.’”
     What a hopeful upbeat message to receive!  
Moses, the newly-selected messenger of God, was totally certain that the people would rejoice. 
In fact, in Exodus, Chapter 4, it says that they did actually believe and accept what they heard.
So why not in this case?  
I could go into an explanation of how various sources from different writers were woven together to form the narrative in the Torah.
Or, I could simply say, that it’s possible to experience a bright, optimistic declaration in different ways based on your mood on a given day, or in a particular moment.
What was the state of the Israelites at that moment?
We can discover that easily, without an opinion poll, with no need for cable or network news.   No tweets are available from that time, of course.
Just this: the Torah states that they couldn’t listen to Moses because of KOTZER RUACH.
KOTZER is from the root that means short.
RUACH is wind or spirit.
So what do we make of this phrase that preceded the words AVODAH KASHAH, which means “hard work” or “difficult labor”?
Some have taken the two phrases together and translated “Cruel bondage.”
However, the phrase KOTZER RUACH deserves attention all by itself.
So….here are some of the translations.  
·      “Crushed spirit” (from The Torah commentary translation, URJ/CCAR Press).  
·      Stunted spirits (from the Eitz Chayim Commentary).
·      Broken Spirit (NRSV – Oxford Annotated Bible)
·      Dejection (Catholic Study Bible – New American Revised)
·      Shortage of spirit (from Richard Elliot Friedman’s Commentary on the Torah).
·      Shortness of spirit (from Everett Fox’s translation, The Five Books of Moses).  
·      Shortness of Breath (by the commentator Rashi)
·      Impatience (Ramban/Nachmanides),
·      Michael Walzer’s suggested rendering, “Dispiritedness.” (the last three were cited by Everett Fox in his translation).
Robert Alter, in his translation and commentary,  accepted Rashi’s suggestion of “shortness of breath,” noting that the people’s bondage had been made harder by Moses’s attempt to free them.  They couldn’t catch their breath due to their exhausting work.
     Perhaps you are feeling like this – with KOTZER RUACH -  just a little bit today as we continue to face the challenge of racism in our nation, and not just in the wake of the tragic and fatal result of the Charlottesville protests.   Where there is one hatred, there tends to be another.  When racism rears its head, anti-Semitism is not too far behind. Some might say that these attitudes go in cycles.  I would suggest that those prejudices are always present.  They go underground when people who espouse such views become marginalized. They resurface when some charismatic leader reactivates the acceptance and even encouragement of expressions of bigotry by using such rhetoric to gain a following.
     That is why the world needs people who will come forth, like Moses, with a message that is hopeful, and affirming of all people.   Moses went to tell dehumanized individuals that they were, in fact, as human and as deserving of respect as their oppressors.   Moses went to their oppressors to tell them that their slaves were, in fact, as human as they were.  Whenever human beings want to minimize the value of a group of people, one adjective that seems convenient to add is “only.”   In the animated film “Prince of Egypt,” Moses, after discovering the slaughter of the first born Israelite sons at the time of his birth, spoke with his adoptive father, the Pharaoh Seti.  Seti told Moses that he should not be concerned.  “They were only slaves” were his words of comfort that stirred Moses’ Israelite soul.   It is one of the most powerful moments in that film, expressive of the message that cries out from the text – that all people are human and deserve to be free. 
    Perhaps the most important message of this passage is about caring.  God told Moses of divine concern and  compassion for the people crying out in pain due to  their KOTZER RUACH.   Moses’ mission was to be God’s eyes, ears, hands and heart on earth – to relentlessly stand truth to power before a ruler who didn’t know what it meant to be compassionate, but who only understood power and its uses and application.   Moses, having been raised in the Egyptian royal court, could not have been accused of dehumanizing those who enslaved his people.  He was familiar with their views and their lifestyles. Because of that, he likely knew what it would take for them to change and to allow those whom they had enslaved to go free.
     I had the opportunity to sit in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta last March and to visit the graves of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King.   We learned about the life of King and others who lived in that neighborhood and their place in the greater Atlanta community.   We also visited the Temple -Hebrew Benevolent congregation, a building that was bombed in 1958 because of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild’s support of the emerging civil rights movement.  He was driven by a belief that all people are created in the divine image.
   This notion of acceptance begins in the loving relationships of one’s home and in community.  It is nurtured over the course of years through the teaching, by one generation to the next, of love, support, empathy, encouragement, and resilience in the face of challenge.   When we band together as a community, we hope that those values are still the hallmark of who we are.     

     And so, on this night when we read of positive words presented to the Israelites, we can think of the ways that we can free one another from the stresses and burdens of our lives so that we can find greater contentment.    We can consider how we can walk with each other with arms outstretched in a way that offers help and hope and endurance.   We can pledge over and over again to be partners with each other in facing each day with strength and courage.    And we can walk with one another as traveling companions towards a land of promise filled with mutual consideration, understanding, and peace.    

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