So Dan over at JewSchool is starting a new project, Radical Torah, in which I’ll be participating. Each week, number of people, mostly rabbinic types, will be blogging in the parsha (Torah portion of the week). I’m going to try to do something every week if I can, it’d be a great practice for me personally if nothing else. I’m not sure how “radical” my Torah is–it might just be Torah–but I’m happy and honored to be on board. Anyway, check out the site.

In any case, I’m gonna cross-post this week’s drashette here:

Kotzer Ruach and Responsibility
by Danya Ruttenberg // January 27th, 2006
Va-era וארא, Tevet,

This week, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites that God has promised to free them from Egyptian enslavement, to enter into a covenant with them and to bring them to the the Promised Land. “And Moses spoke thusly to Israel, and they did not hear Moses, because of kotzer ruach and too much hard work” (Ex. 6:9). Kotzer ruach. Literally, shortness of spirit. Rashi explains that “If someone is in a distressed state, his breath and his soul (his ruach and his neshama) are short, and he cannot “ha’arich b’nishamato.” That is to say, “he cannot draw long breaths” or “he cannot lengthen his soul.”

When someone is in a distressed state—when one has been on the receiving end of abuse, violence, systematic oppression, or any one of a number of other kinds of hurt or neglect, he or she is likely going find that his or her very soul has been truncated, cut off, violated in the most primal possible way. And, as in Exodus, in that state it’s nearly impossible to hear God’s voice, even when that voice is trying to tell you that there is an end in sight to your suffering, and anguish. Lo shamu—not, “they did not listen,” but, “they did not hear.” In a state of extreme pain and disconnect, they simply weren’t able to hear—not even God’s promise of salvation.

Our liturgy tends to focus on acknowledging the wrongs we’ve committed: wrongs against others, wrongs against oneself, and of course wrongs against God. This is fitting, and appropriate both in terms of spiritual health and in terms of our communal well-being. And yet, particularly if we’ve suffered significantly at the hands of others, it can be quite difficult and problematic to focus on how we’re the “bad” ones after all the very real bad that has been done to us. This reluctance is understandable yet dangerous—it goes without saying that some of the world’s greatest atrocities, as well as most of its smaller, more daily ones—are perpetuated by people who were hurt, wounded—genuinely victims—but who have been so locked in their own narrative of suffering, in their victim mentality that they refused to take responsibility for their actions.

During the rest of this parsha, God works at trying to get Israel out of the oppressive situation in which they have been situated, and in the next parsha, God mandates the holiday of Pesach, which (let’s pretend the ancient Israelites used our Haggadah) requires the acknowledgement of all the suffering that has been endured. “Avadim hainu.” We were slaves. The source of kotzer ruach is named, out loud, given the weight of truth and reality. Taken seriously by others. It’s a crucial first step, the place from which the healing can begin. We can say to God, “This is your job”—to deal with the Egyptians, to get us to someplace safe, to be our partner in covenant. (It’s also obviously our job here on Earth to deal with those who perpetuate oppression and inflict trauma.) It’s only after we’re given the space and opportunity to name the ways in which we have been hurt that the other vital work, of assessing our own responsibilities and actions, can begin.

[X-posted to “Radical Torah.]

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