Today is the day in Jewish history when liberation begins. Today is the day in our Torah reading when the redemption begins. This Shabbat begins the conquest of Egypt and Pharaoh. But even though the Torah reading ends with a bang, with the plagues of blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, cattle disease, boils, and hail (to be followed next week by the plagues of locusts, darkness and the death of the first born), the Torah portion doesn’t start off too good, as we say here in the south.
God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD. I appeared to
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself
known to them by My name יהוה. I also established My covenant with
them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as
sojourners. I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the
Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My
covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the LORD. I will free
you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I
will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary
chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.
And you shall know that I, the LORD, am your God who freed you from the
labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give
to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I
How is that for a speech? Who would not be pumped to hear that? Start packing. Load up the truck. We are going to Canaan.
But then comes the kicker. Not so fast, the Torah tell us:
But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses,
When a person has been working so hard–too hard—they lose their humanity and their ability to hope. From the very moment of creation, God tell us that we are not machines. God tells us that Adam and Eve’s first act as human beings is to sanctify time and observe Shabbat, together with their Creator. Among the more debilitating aspects of slavery is that fact that a human being—created in the image of God—that a human being’s value is linked only to the value of his economic output. It has nothing to do with his humanity, his struggles or her aspirations. His spiritual life is decimated. She is valued only for what she contributes to her owners. I believe that as much as the taskmaster’s lash, the decimation of the Israelites’ humanity was what made the Israelites suffer during slavery.
We all know what it is like to work hard. We all know what it is like to work overtime and have so much to do that we reach the point of exhaustion. What sapped the souls of the slaves in Egypt was not only the hard work imposed upon them, but also the crushing of their human spirit. And that is why the Israelites rejected Moses when he came to offer them hope. They had, what the Torah calls, kotzer ruach. The words, kotzer ruach are easy to translate but difficult to understand. The Israelites would not listen to God because of their kotzer ruach, their truncated spirit, their spiritless outlook on life, their shortened breath, their soul force that was cut down by Pharaoh and their taskmasters. The term kotzer is an agricultural term. It means to reap—to cut down. A kotzer is a reaper. Think of a series of blades that cuts the stalks of growing grain. And ruach is the human spirit, the soul and the life force.
My friends, there are people in this world and events in this world that stalk us like reapers, that cut us down when we should be positive and hopeful. They destroy our soul and shorten our spirit, and we cannot hear the hopeful message from God—that we are valuable because we are created b’Tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine, and that God will deliver us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm from those forces which impose upon us avodah kasha and kotzer ruach.
I was particularly moved by these words of Torah. This has been a week where we have all had too much kotzer ruach. President Trump’s inauguration and the women’s march protests around the world and the tweets and the media and all of the noise have elevated this aberrant election year to perhaps become the start of an entirely new status quo. Is this now the state of our discourse and the way we will be expected to speak to each other in the years to come? No matter where we may sit on the political spectrum, and let me remind you that this is the United States of America and we can stand proudly on the right and on the left or in the middle for the things we believe without being belittled or having our convictions and loyalty and love of country called into question. In a vibrant democracy, we are not required to agree with each other or support our opponents’ point of view. Tonight I am not intending to talk about the policies and executive orders and initiatives which have emanated from Washington. I want to talk about the kotzer ruach, the shortness of spirit that is plaguing our nation and affecting us so deeply.
Here are my suggestions to repair the ruach, the spirit that seems to be damaged and in woefully short supply in this country. The availability of social media and twitter means that we can express ourselves without taking responsibility for our words and actions. That has been a curse for our public discourse. Last night, I spoke at the Prince of Peace Catholic Church on a panel with Dr. Sameh Asal, the Imam at the Birmingham Islamic Society and Father Ray Dunmyer, a Roman Catholic priest and dear friend. We spoke about interfaith relations. We had a light dinner before the program, and one of the conveners from the Church brought up the comments section underneath the article in Al.com announcing the event. He simply shook his head.
I told him that I never read the comments to anything that I write or other people write. On the internet, people can write and say things without being held responsible for their actions or their words.
At our program last night, I was amazed at the crowd at the Church who came to hear about religion on a cold January night. While I was hopeful that we would scrounge up 50 people, the hall was overflowing with more than 600 folks eager and hungry and joyous for the words and sentiments we would offer.
Together with my fellow panelists, we all spoke well enough. But what made the event so remarkable was the rush of feeling and appreciation we had for each other and that the audience showed for each other and for us. Around the world, Muslims and Christians and Jews are fighting with each other and among each other. Our differences are profound. These Muslim and Christian and Jewish warriors contribute to the kotzer ruach that pervades our civilization.
Friends, religion—for it to be real—must be heartfelt and passionate. And Judaism, Islam and Christianity, despite the many things that unite us, have real and significant differences. We talked about them. The Imam said that while Islam reveres Jesus, that Islam does not ascribe divinity to Jesus—putting him at odds with the Christians in the room. I spoke about the terrible history of division and hatred that the Church promulgated against Judaism and Jews in earlier times. And the Catholic speaker did not budge on the fact that he believes his religion is the best way to be faithful to God. So how was it that last night, when we talked frankly about what unites us and, more importantly in my opinion, about what divides us, that we had so many beautiful moments and that there was such a loving feeling in the vast social hall?
I believe that people were hungry, starving actually, to hear kind and appreciative words spoken from people with heartfelt and passionate differences. And while none of my fellow speakers nor I gave an inch on our faith, we all spoke with respect and affirmation for the other. Instead of cutting down the ruach, the spirit of the people in the room—we loved and appreciated the differences and affirmed the humanity and the spirit of all people of faith. It was that example of respect and appreciation for faith and human beings, even in the impersonal world of Facebook and the tweetosphere which opened up our hearts towards God and towards all of the people in the crowded room sitting on the folding chairs.
People are begging for the experience of kindness and appreciation. We are all begging for our leaders and the institutions we depend upon to build up our spirit and deal with each other, especially with our differences, with respect and decency—with kindness and compassion.
In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers—which is the philosophical cornerstone of Rabbinic Judaism, the famous Rabbi Shammai—who was known to be stringent in his observance and interpretation of Torah—taught: Make your Torah study a permanent fixture of your life. Say little and do much. And receive every person with a pleasant countenance.
Study with diligence. Act with intention. And for God’s sake smile at people. Receive people with a pleasant countenance. They are human just like you are. They need to be affirmed just like you need to be affirmed. They need their ruach to be affirmed. There is too much kotzer—too much cutting down. And all of us suffer.
Our new President speaks passionately about winning. I give him credit. He seems to have grabbed the brass ring on every ride he gets on. He is a winner. But I would like him to do more than that. I would like him to focus on making us all winners, on devoting himself to a better America. And I would hope that the protests—which are one of the great strengths of our great land, will focus not on the person of the President, but rather on the protestors vision for the greater good. In a democracy, we must expect that we will at times stand in opposition to our neighbors and our government. That is the American way. But the Jewish way is to stand firm with a smile, and never to attack people—never to cut down their spirit. No matter where you may stand this week after, there are battles to be had. And the battles are serious and consequential. But we should never cut down the ruach, the spirit of our adversaries. They are human beings too. And one day, we may need them as friends.
Too often, we assume that leadership must be hard and aggressive, that we must fight for what we want and crush our adversaries. Let me assure you that there are many times when this is the only option against implacable enemies. But most times, leadership can be far more effective, when we speak to each other, when we address our fellow human beings, and provide a pleasant countenance—a smile—an acknowledgement of the humanity of the people facing us as either our friends or our adversaries. That is what we should demand from our President and from those who oppose him.
I will conclude with some more quotes from our rabbis. Back to Pirkei Avot:
Rabbi ben Zoma would say: Who is wise? One who learns from every man. Who is strong? One who overpowers his selfish inclinations. Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his portion. Who is honorable? One who honors his fellows.
And finally, from Avot d’Rabbi Natan: Who is the one who is truly a hero? The one who turns his enemy into a friend.
At the time of change, upheaval and kotzer ruach, hold fast to your principles. Fight for what you believe. But do it in such a way that you can turn your enemy into a friend. And by all means, greet everyone b’sever panim yafot, with a cheerful and pleasant countenance.