Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
This Shabbat we celebrate the New Moon of Shevat, the beginning of the Hebrew month in which the world begins to turn from the darkness of winter to the light of spring. We now stand on a threshold, emerging from the darkest day of the darkest month, into a sliver of new light — by which we might contemplate new possibility.
In this week’s Torah portion, Va’era (meaning “I Will Show You”), God opens the divine aperture, shining a filament of light upon darkest Egypt. But the Children of Israel are too weak to respond. The Torah says they are kotzer ruach, diminished in spirit, or, more literally, short of breath. Distressed as they are, they cannot accept consolation.
Indeed, all the characters we encounter in Va’era seem stunned, unable to respond to God’s articulations of redemption, whether because of self-doubt, sheer exhaustion, or owing to fear of change.
The narrative stalls when God announces His grand plan: Hotzeiti, hitzalti, gaalti, v’lakachti – v’haivaiti! I will take you out! I will save you! I will redeem you! I will draw you to me! I will bring you home! Well, who wouldn’t be overwhelmed? It’s all too presumptuous for Moshe to feel comfortable proclaiming, too preposterous to be believed by the People, and far too threatening to affect any degree of empathy in Pharaoh.
Moving out of their darkness will mean traversing entry into the light of otherness, into the light of unfamiliar ideas. It will require opening to vulnerability, facing challenge, and submitting to the pangs of growth. In Va’era, no one’s ready to take such a step, least of all The Children of Israel.
So, God, in God’s wisdom, pulls back from His generalized pronouncements of emancipation and engages in the Plagues, a series of more visceral manifestations through which Israel can come to know Him, gauge his power and commitment, get used to Him, and somewhere, internally, begin to imagine freedom… Through this lens, the Ten Plagues, are an expression of God’s patience with Israel as her undifferentiated pain and longing develops into the courage to act.
Israel does not cry out, but perhaps God hears the lament they don’t have enough breath to give voice to, for what is a cry if not an exhalation of breath, and they are kotzer ruach, short of breath.
In our own world and our own time, we, too, are just catching our breath, just raising our heads from the shock of unwelcome change and from the bewilderment and depression that has overwhelmed us. But we must not wait for divine redemption or even for a single great leader to emerge and illuminate a single path forward; we are the redeemers of our time and it is we who must learn from God’s example, gathering strength to confront the pharaoh over and over until justice prevails.
Unlike Israel’s frozen, silent suffering in Vaera, we are already crying and singing aloud, showing up by the hundreds of thousands, and creating small warming lights in a dark time. I believe we caught out collective breath last Saturday. Now, as the world warms and lightens, let’s begin our work in earnest, weaving our strengths together, supporting one another, and cultivating an innovative spirit as spacious as the waxing moon.
We are the redeemer, and redemption will be the culmination of our persistent confrontation of evil.
Pronounced: moe-SHEH, Origin: Hebrew, Moses, whom God chooses to lead the Jews out of Egypt.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.