January 16,2021 Parashat Va’era פרשת וארא
Have you ever tried to talk to someone and you know they’re not listening? Maybe you were trying to talk about politics to someone on the opposite side, or like when my Mom tries to tell me to clean my room, or when I try to tell my sister about a video game and she does not listen at all? It’s a common experience, and one that Moses found himself in as well.
In parshat Va’era, God speaks to Moses at the burning bush. Moses goes down to Egypt and tells the Israelites that they will be led to a new land, but the Torah says they did not listen to Moses “because of [their] “קֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ,” shortness of breath and because of [their] hard labor.” The Israelites can’t catch their breath because they, as slaves, are forced to do hard work for hours every day. The slaves can’t listen to Moses because of their shortness of spirit. The Jews are exhausted and broken, they are at their max.
This past year, 2020, left us reeling, feeling קֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּ, shortness of spirit. A global pandemic, wildfires, the election, the explosions in Beirut and Nashville, the geopolitical climate and the effects of climate change. Any one of these can leave you short of breath. It’s hard to find strength, especially when fun things, like summers at camp, are canceled. Kotzer ruach includes the word ruach, which is a term I’m very familiar with. At Camp Yavneh, where I have spent many summers, ruach, or spirit, is everywhere. We dance and sing until we’re often out of breath. Just like the Israelites, we have “קֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ” but for an entirely different reason. We can’t catch our breath because of the amount of fun we’re having. I’ve found that knowing that you’ve had those positive experiences before, helps us to know that we will have them again. Think of when you’ve had an excess of spirit in a positive way, like when you were able to dance and sing at camp until you had a literal shortness of breath.
Even in 2020, we had opportunities for a positive excess of spirit. The protests for racial injustice and Black Lives Matter were inspiring to witness. Our country sent astronauts to space for the first time in almost 10 years. As we stayed at home, we protected the vulnerable in our communities. We even found an excess of spirit in silly things like Netflix binges and video games.
Eventually, the Israelites once again had an excess of spirit. They were able to cross the Red Sea and dance and sing until they were “קֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ,” short of breath, but this time, due to happiness. So the question is, what can we do to turn “קֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ,” shortness of breath, into excess of spirit? What can I do as a Jewish adult to change things? I think that what the Israelites had to have then, and what we need now, is hope. Hope for a successful global immunization and eradication of COVID-19. Hope for an improved environment. Hope for a return to our schools and businesses and temples for simchas like this one. Hope for a better future.