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Parshat Vaera Room to Breathe: Seeking Agency in Narrow Places

Parshat Vaera Room to Breathe: Seeking Agency in Narrow Places

In attuning ourselves to being able to ‘listen’, we might be able to receive tanchumim, connect to feelings of hope or even, to God.

Courtesy of Adina Roth
Courtesy of Adina Roth

Parshat Vaera sees the grand unfolding of Hashem’s plan to show Pharaoh and the Egyptians that He is God. This Parsha traces the unleashing of the makot on the Egyptians and notes the increasingly hardened heart of Pharaoh. 

While the overarching story is about these large-scale events, the parsha opens with insights into the state of mind of B’nei Yisrael. Hashem asks Moshe to reassure the people, telling them that He  has heard their cries and is going to save them. The people will be taken out of Mitzrayim and will be able to pursue its destiny. Moshe brings this message of comfort and hope to the people. And we are told, ‘velo shamu el Moshe mipnei kotzer ru’ach u’me’avodah kashah’ ‘The people of Israel would not listen to Moses, from shortness of breath and cruel bondage. (Ex, ch. 6, v 9).’

Commenting on the words ‘they would not listen’, Rashi creates an equivalence between ‘to listen’ and ‘to receive’ saying,  ‘lo kiblu tanchumin’, the people were not able to receive words of comfort. 

What prevents the people from receiving comfort? The avodah kashah describes the cruelty of slavery whereby our individual liberties were removed and harsh bondage imposed.  There is little agency when large forces of power control the parameters of one’s life. Yet, Jungian analyst James Hollis reminds us that humans have the capacity to develop resilience in the most challenging of circumstances. Where was B’nei Yisrael’s resilience at this time? In the same passuk, we are told that the people are also not able to listen because of ‘kotzer ru’ach, shortness of breath.’ Unlike the ‘avodah kashah’ our commentaries suggest that we exerted more control over this stymied breath. The Midrash Aggadah claims that the people were ‘short’, ‘katzar’ on ‘spirit’ meaning emunah,  and thus were drawn to idols. The Sefat Emet makes a startling interpretation of the Midrash suggesting that B’nei Yisrael were not actually worshipping idols, but were so distanced from themselves and filled with the vanities of the world that they had no inner space to receive this message of hope. They were in a space of exile or alienation. Rashi observes that both Mitzrayim and kotzer contain the root ‘tzar’. He links the two saying any person in a state of constriction (meitzar), will experience shortness (katzar) of breath. We might understand Rashi’s meitzar or constriction as anxiety, a state of fright that freezes a person.  Edvard Munch’s terror-laden image of ‘The Scream’ comes to mind. When people experience undue stress and pressure, we lose our capacity to take deep, long breaths, cutting us off from the source of life, and from actually living.

Thus, two factors prevent the people from receiving Moshe’s tanchumim; external factors linked to oppression and enslavement (avodah kashah) and an inner state of mind linked to alienation, distancing from God and anxiety (kotzer ru’ach).  

If Avodah Kashah limits our actual freedom, kotzer ru’ach seems to inhibit a subtle type of freedom or aliveness. The Sefat Emet suggests that had we been able to hear Moshe’s message, we would have been freed immediately. This might not have been the physical redemption, but had we been able to reduce kotzer ru’ach, our experience of that time might have shifted. Because of the state of mind we were in, this opportunity for an immediate, perhaps internal experience of freedom did not happen. 

Like B’nei Yisrael, we find ourselves caught in the powerful currents of history, political power-plays, pandemics, circumstances over which we  as individuals have very little control.

This is our ‘avodah kashah’, the larger forces which play out across our world. 

Particularly in this pandemic, many of us are trapped in  a kind of ‘waiting game’; we are waiting for this awful time to end so that we can resume  the task of living again. However, this passuk in Parshat Vaera suggests that our constriction and redemption depend not only on external factors but also on the ways in which we work with our own ‘kotzer ru’ach’ right now. 

As we begin 2021, gripped by second and third waves of COVID-19 in many parts of the world, we might be inclined to hopelessness. This can lead to filling our minds and hearts with pessimism and anticipatory anxieties about what will be. If our minds are filled with kotzer ru’ach, we will not have the openness to be  ‘mekabel tanchumim’. The British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion advises therapists that in helping patients, they should listen ‘without memory or desire’. Bion’s deeper vision is that if we impose our own preconceived notions onto the person speaking, we cannot actually hear what the other person is saying.  In the words of the Sefat Emet, ‘Hearing requires being empty of everything, so that we can hear the voice of God.’ What if part of our work at this very moment was to develop resilience-building practices to minimise ‘kotzer ru’ach’?

In attuning ourselves to being able to ‘listen’, we might be able to receive tanchumim, connect to feelings of hope or even, to God.

Our tool box could include poetry, Torah learning, prayer, reaching out to family and community,  activism and tzedakah. As resilience develops, we may experience moments of relief, ‘tanchumim’. The tanchumim may be a passing calm, perspective, wisdom, or kindness. Perhaps, quite simply we will feel less constricted by ‘kotzer ru’ach’ and more open to neshimah, breath and expansiveness.  

This is a hard time in our world, but we have a model in our tradition of people going through very difficult times with ultimate redemption! We learn from B’nei Yisrael that any redemption requires waiting, subject to forces beyond our control. However, we are not mere victims of circumstance. 

By working on our resilience and healing our ‘kotzer ru’ach, we create room for agency in our own narrow places.

The resultant feeling of inner capaciousness can help us bear the heaviness of our times and receive the goodness and hope that does exist around us. It might even be that our expanded consciousness can help usher in the larger-scale transformations and redemptions for which we hope and pray.

Adina Roth is a Jewish educator and Clinical Psychologist in Johannesburg, South Africa. After spending a year in Jerusalem studying at Pardes and coordinating the Kol Isha women’s leadership programme, Adina returned to South African and completed a Masters in Contemporary Literature comparing Hassidic and Post-Modern readings of Bereshit. She then went on to do a second Masters at New York University on a Fulbright scholarship where she did her thesis on post-colonial and psychoanalytic readings of Shemot. While in New York, Adina studied at Drisha and simultaneously discovered yoga and free-style dance classes. Since then she has remained interested in integrating intellectual experiences with the body. After her time in New York, Adina returned to South Africa and founded B’tocham Education, an after-school programme for B’nei Mitzvah. She has developed a full curriculum for her students and integrates art and poetry into her pedagogy. She also teaches girls as well as boys to lein for their coming of age rituals. In addition to taking b’nei mitzvah through traditional rites of passage such as Torah chanting and d’var Torah, Adina’s bat mitzvah students spend a day in the mountains, creating innovative Jewish ritual to mark and welcome the changes taking place in their bodies. Adina has taught courses for Melton and also runs her own courses in Tanach for adults, integrating traditional commentaries, Midrash, Hassidut and literature and psychoanalysis. Fourteen years later, B’tocham education has expanded into a programme that welcomes kids from Year K through to bar and bat mitzvah for a programme of Hebrew literacy and Jewish studies. A co-founder of the Jozi Partnership minyan, Adina also works as a Clinical Psychologist and lives in Johannesburg with her husband Farryl who is a physical therapist and musician and her two children Maya and Adam. She loves to jog, spend time in nature and listen to podcasts and is so excited to be joining Yeshivat Maharat this year.

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