Taste of Torah: Va’era

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא שָֽׁמְעוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה׃

But when Moshe told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to him because of their kotzer ruah and their difficult labor.

Exodus 6:9

When kindergarten teacher Anne Forer began attending Women’s Liberation meetings in the late 1960s, she struggled at first to understand the problem. What, exactly, did women need to be liberated from? “One night at a meeting I said: ‘Would everyone please give me an example from their own life on how they experienced oppression as a woman? I need to hear it to raise my own consciousness.’ ” The women proceeded to share stories of their own personal struggles with sexism—from catcalls while walking down the street, to harassment at work, to unfair expectations at home. In hearing story after story, the women realized that their struggles were not individual, but rather a collective need to change society. Forer’s simple question became the basis for the practice of “consciousness raising,” now an essential first step in building a movement. In the feminist movement, just as in the labor movement, people had to believe that change was possible before they could do anything about it.

In our parashah, Moshe returns to Egypt after receiving assurances directly from God that the Israelites will be redeemed from slavery. But when he shares this good news with the oppressed people, they ignore him: in the midst of their kotzer ruah and hard labor, they can’t even understand the possibility of freedom. What is this “kotzer ruah?” Rashi interprets the phrase as “shortness of breath,” commenting that “whoever is under stress, his wind and his breath are short, and he cannot take a deep breath.” As Sforno reminds us, though, the word ruah also has implications beyond the physical: the Israelites here are lacking in spirit. Moshe’s promise of freedom, Sforno writes, “did not appear believable to their present state of mind…their hearts could not assimilate such a promise.” Their consciousness had not been raised; their spirits were too crushed to begin to hope.

It takes many painful efforts (and God’s divine intervention) before the Israelites finally taste freedom and, even then, it will take another forty years before they reach the Promised Land. So too, when Anne Forer died in 2018, more than 50 years after the Women’s Liberation movement began, few would argue that full liberation had been achieved. And yet the consciousness raising—the collective expansion of spirit—that began in that New York City apartment was the first step toward massive societal shifts that continue today. Like Forer, may we all overcome our kotzer ruah in order to seek liberation.

abi weber

Written By Abi Weber

Abi Weber is a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.