How to create room to breathe while being constricted
There is no doubt that our community and wider country are starting 2021 in a meitzar, a narrow place, filled with fear and anxiety. Caught in a second wave which we hoped would never come, we are waiting with trepidation for schools to start, for numbers to drop, for vaccines to arrive. Would it help us to reflect that in Parshat Vayeira this week, we find the Israelites caught in their narrow place, the slavery of Egypt, Mitzrayim!
While the parsha this week describes the unfolding of the larger-scale events of the plagues, it opens with insight into the state of mind of “the people”, b’nei Yisrael. Hashem asks Moshe to reassure enslaved people by 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 allowed to pursue their destiny. Moshe brings this message of comfort and hope to the people. And we are told, “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 weren’t able to receive words of comfort). It’s a deep place of despair where a person isn’t able to receive words of soothing and hope.
What stopped people from being able to be comforted? The avodah kashah describes the cruel bondage of slavery in which our people’s individual liberties and freedom were removed. Indeed, it may feel as if there is little agency or room to move when large forces of power are manipulating one’s life, such as in a pandemic.
However, we are also told that the people weren’t able to listen because of kotzer ru’ach (shortness of breath). The Midrash Aggadah plays on the words kotzer ru’ach, and claims that the people were “short on spirit” meaning emunah, and thus became involved in idol worship.
The Sefat Emet makes a startling interpretation of this midrash, suggesting that the Israelites weren’t actually worshipping idols, but rather 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. Rashi observes that both Mitzrayim and kotzer contain the root “tzar”. He links the two, saying anyone who is in constriction (meitzar), will experience shortness (katzar) of breath. We might understand Rashi’s meitzar or constriction as anxiety, a state of constriction that freezes a person, conjuring up Edvard Munch’s terror-laden image of The Scream. When we are put under undue stress and pressure, we lose our capacity to take deep, long breaths. 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 G-d, and distressing anxiety (kotzer ru’ach).
Like b’nei Yisrael, we find ourselves caught in the powerful currents of history, political power-plays, pandemics, and all sorts of circumstances over which we have very little control. This is our avodah kashah, the larger forces which play out across our world. However, according to the parsha, our constriction and redemption depend not only on external factors but also on the way in which we work with our own kotzer ru’ach. As we begin 2021 gripped by second waves of COVID-19 in many parts of the world, we might be inclined to feel hopeless. This can lead to filling our minds and hearts with pessimism, negative projections onto the year, and anticipatory anxieties about what will be. If our mind is filled with kotzer ru’ach, it won’t have the emptiness to be open to receive the whispers and ripples of hope when they come our way.
In the words of the Sefat Emet, “Hearing requires being empty of everything so that we can hear the voice of G-d.” In times like these, if we are sufficiently attuned, we might be able to receive comfort, connect to feelings of hope, or even feel moments of faith and upliftment. These moments may come as calm, as perspective, as wisdom, as kindness, in the form of poetry, Torah learning, or prayer. Perhaps, quite simply, we will feel less constricted by “shortness of breath”, and more open to neshimah, breath, and expansiveness.
This is a hard time in our world, but we have a tradition of people going through very difficult times and being redeemed from them. We learn from b’nei Yisrael that any redemption requires waiting and is subject to forces beyond our control. However, we aren’t mere victims of circumstance. By working to heal our kotzer ru’ach, we create room for agency in our own narrow places. It might even be that our expanded ability to receive can help usher in the larger-scale transformation and redemption for which we hope and pray.
- Adina Roth is a Jewish educator at B’tocham Education, and a clinical psychologist in private practice in Johannesburg. She is studying online at Yeshivat Maharat in New York.