From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
And they did not listen to Moshe out of shortness of breath.
“What about the workers?”
Imagine you have been working on the job for years and years. It is hard manual labor, and you are not simply tired but exhausted, demoralized, drained, and frustrated. And then, one fine day, some new fellow on the floor stands up and promises a whole new world of equality, rewards, and ultimate freedom. Do you believe him or are you beyond hope? Do you dare hold out for a better tomorrow and risk being disillusioned and cast into despair yet again, or do you simply accept your fate and give up dreaming?
So it was with our ancestors in Egypt. They were slaving away all those years when a new face appeared and began making promises. Moshe Rabbeinu brings a message from G‑d that they are about to be redeemed. There is a Promised Land ahead. All is not lost. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
The Jews’ response? “And they did not listen to Moshe out of shortness of breath and from the hard labor.”
One commentary explains that “shortness of breath” shouldn’t be understood only literally. The Hebrew for breath is ruach, which can also mean “spirit.” In other words, they weren’t able to heed Moshe’s call not only from physical breathlessness but because they lacked the spirit. Having suffered in bondage for so long, they no longer had the faith or hope to believe that freedom was still in the realm of the possible. It was simply beyond them. They had lost the spirit.
In the history of Egypt not a single slave had ever escaped. How could an entire nation ever walk free? Moshe was a dreamer, they must have thought. It was just not realistic to hold out such high hopes only to have them dashed yet again. And so the people were utterly despondent and spiritless, and therefore they could not hear or absorb Moshe’s message.
It happens all too often. People become so set in their mediocrity that they give up hope of ever achieving the breakthrough. Marriages get stuck in the rut of routine, and the tedious treadmill keeps rolling along until we lose even the desire to dream. And Israel’s people, even brave leaders, are so despondent from years of war, attrition, and terror that they clutch at imaginary straws because, basically, if we are honest with ourselves, many of them have simply lost the resolve.
I have often quoted a wise proverb heard in the name of the legendary chassid Reb Mendel Futerfas. “If you lose your money, you’ve lost nothing; money comes and money goes. If you lose your health, you’ve lost half; you are not the person you were before. But if you lose your resolve, you’ve lost it all.” Moshe brought new hope to a depressed, dreamless nation. He gave them back the spirit they had lost, and eventually, through the miracles of G‑d, the promise was fulfilled and the dream became destiny.
To be out of breath is normal. To be out of spirit is something the Jewish People can never afford. May we never lose the spirit.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.