Devar Torah on Parashat Va’era

We’re right in the thick of the struggle for liberation. It has begun, and what happens here will determine its success or failure. Am I talking about our moment in our cyclical reading of Torah – this week’s Torah portion, called Va’era – or about our moment in history right now? The answer is yes.

We’re right in the thick of the struggle for liberation. It has begun, and what happens here will determine its success or failure.

Am I talking about our moment in our cyclical reading of Torah – this week’s Torah portion, called Va’era – or about our moment in history right now? The answer is yes.

This is the Torah portion right after the process of liberation has begun. Moses and Aaron have just made their first petition to Pharoah, and Pharoah has retaliated. This portion contains seven of the ten plagues. It’s the story of struggle for liberation in progress.

In all the back and forth and escalation in this Torah portion, there is a lot of talk about Pharoah and his state of mind or heart. You probably remember the famous series of episodes in which Pharoah’s heart hardens. When Pharoah’s heart is hardened, liberation is delayed. It seems that a lot depends on Pharoah’s heart. That seems to put the whole process somewhat out of our hands, which could be discouraging! And indeed, not all of this is up to us, which is important to remember, given how long this may take and how hard it may be – when it takes a long time, when it’s extraordinarily hard, when it seems like it’s not working, that’s not our fault, it’s not because we’re not trying hard enough; a significant piece of this not entirely in our hands. So we wouldn’t be crazy to feel discouraged!

Again, am I talking about our parashah – that is, the Pharoah in our parashah – or am I talking about our moment in history – that is, our Pharoah? Again, the answer is yes.

But at the same time there are several indications in our parashah that so much of this actually does depend on us. So there is a lot we can do! Specifically, it seems, a lot of it depends on our state of mind. In the last Torah portion, when Moses first delivered the message to the people that they would be liberated from Egypt, we “believed.” In this parashah, after Pharoah’s initial retaliations, Moses delivers another hopeful message and the people aren’t even capable of listening to him! Whether we are able to listen to a hopeful message like what Moses was delivering – that is, whether we are able to see the possibility of liberation enough to be part of bringing it about – whether we are able to act in a way that is consistent with liberation – depends on our outlook.

I have to say at this point, as a community organizer by training, that these Torah portions that we are in – the ones that describe Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt – are so on point. They are not only incredibly inspirational for justice and liberation struggles of all kinds, they are amazingly insightful as to the dynamics of social movements – how they work, how they progress and develop. As congregation-based community organizers, I and my colleagues referenced specific aspects of the story all the time in training synagogue and church members and clergy in how to organize for change and as we accompanied them through that fraught process.

And a significant part of what makes this story so insightful is its focus on the states of mind and heart of the people struggling to be free, as I began to describe. You find a similar kind of attention to group and individual psychology in John Steinbeck’s accounts of farmworker labor struggles in early 20th-century California in his masterpiece The Grapes of Wrathand even more so in his less widely-read by equally masterful In Dubious Battle. In large part, the success of these struggles depends on our minds, hearts, and spirits. In very significant ways, in other words, it isup to us.

We get a sense of how crucial the people’s consciousness will be to the success or failure of this struggle right at the beginning of this parashah. Here, God sort of repeats the announcement of God’s plans for liberation to Moses, and Moses relays this message to the people. But this time the people cannot hear the message, because of “kotzer ruach,” shortness of spirit or shortness of breath, due to the crushing labor. The phrase is so evocative it’s worth letting it just roll around in your mind for a moment. “Kotzer ruach.” You get the idea right away. They just didn’t have it in them to hear that liberation might be on its way. They were deflated. They could barely catch their collective breath.

The reason is stated right there in the verse – it was because of the hard labor. The oppression was relentless. But the commentators give even more specificity to the cause of this shortness of spirit. Chizkuni says the kotzer ruachwas specifically due to Pharoah’s retaliation – in response to Moses’s first bid to give the people a break from their servitude in last week’s parashah, Pharoah said “let heavier work be laid upon them and let them not listen to lying words.” Ibn Ezra says kotzer ruachis due to the length of their exile in Egypt and the hard labor that was renewed upon them.Again, that retaliation. And retaliation is such a classic response to bids for liberation.

Rashbam notes a possible contradiction – it said previously that they “believed,” that they did listen to the message of liberation and believed in its promise, yet here, later, it says they didn’t listen to him. He explains that this sort of backsliding – this setback of spirit – was because they had initially thought that they would have immediate relief but “now he laid harder work upon them.” This too is classic – when initial hopes aren’t fulfilled, when things actually get worse – people often feel totally defeated.

This attention to the two steps forward, one step backward nature of struggles – or sometimes one step forward, two steps backward – and to the effectiveness of retaliatory measures like Pharoah’s new work quota, is amazingly accurate to how social movements really work.

It’s so hard to be able to believe that liberation is possible in the midst of the struggle, especially when there’s retaliation, especially when it’s getting worse despite our efforts.It definitely feels like it’s getting worse. We’re in that moment when we’ve experienced an initial glimmer of hope, but now “heavier work is being laid upon them.” Retaliatory shutdowns, more tear gas. First one then two refugee children dead in the custody of ICE. Every week brings a new crop of horrors. We feel that kotzer ruach. It’s so hard to hear a message of hope.

There’s another verse, just a few verses later, that also suggests the significance of our state of mind and heart. After Moses reports back to God that the people aren’t listening to him, much less Pharoah, it says that “God spoke to Moshe and Aaron and commanded them – the Children of Israel and Pharoah – to let the Children of Israel go out of the land of Egypt.” Commanded “them”– not just Pharoah, but also the Children of Israel – to let the Children of Israel go! Why do we need to be commanded to let ourselves go?! In part, this is a general reminder of what I observed earlier, that this whole struggle has everything to do not only with the people holding the reins of power, but with all of us. We have just as much role to play as Pharoah.

More specifically, however, this means that liberation depends on our ability to respond to the same commandment to let go that is directed at Pharoah! The Talmud[1]picks up on this interesting dual commandment and asks: "What was God commanding them (the Children of Israel) about?!” It’s clear that Pharoah needs to free slaves, but what exactly are the people being commanded to do?! God was commanding the Children of Israel, the Talmud replies, “About freeing slaves themselves!” In the future, when they themselves might have that kind of power over others – at such a time in the future, they would need to be ready to free others. It seems that the Children of Israel can’t be released as slaves until they attain the consciousness that would make them willing to release others themselves. In other words, the Talmud is telling us, to become free, you have to be willing to free – to free yourself, you must free others. Here we might find support for the argument that social movements themselves should be free from the kinds of oppressive dynamics and impulses against which they are struggling. As Audre Lorde said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” And it’s suggestive in terms of intersectionality – that everyone is simultaneously in need of liberation on some level, and in need of liberating others on some level.

There’s one final element. There’s an interpretation of that “heavier work” that was laid upon us that says that what it meant was that Pharoah took away Shabbat. That’s why the people were short of spirit or short of breath and couldn’t hear the message of hope – they didn’t have the breathing room – the room for spirit – afforded by Shabbat. So maybe the first thing we can do to be more resilient in the face of all the steps backwards, the heavier work, is to give ourselves the space that Shabbat offers, space to catch our breath, to let our spirit expand a little, to find hope.

[1]Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 17a:1, Perek 3, Halakhah 5