In this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, we read:
God spoke to Moses and said to him… “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 acts of judgment. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.” …But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, due to קֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ / kotzer ruah and cruel bondage. (Exodus 6:2, 6-9)
God promises to redeem the Israelites from Mitzrayim, the Narrow Place of oppression. But the children of Israel are so demoralized they can’t even hear the promise of better. I left the Hebrew phrase קֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ untranslated a moment ago, but kotzer is usually translated as shortness or anguish, and ruah means spirit or breath. Kotzer ruah implies a soul crushed by despair, a kind of shortness of breath that’s spiritual and existential rather than physical.
קֹּ֣צֶר / kotzer can also mean “impatient.” What would it mean to say that the Israelites’ souls were impatient? How does that fit with the idea that they were so ground-down by oppression and circumstance that they couldn’t even imagine accessing hope? How can one be impatient for something if one can’t feel any hope of the thing actually coming to pass? But maybe that’s what makes it anguish: feeling impatient, and feeling that change is impossible.
The haggadah teaches, “In every generation we must see ourselves as if we had been brought forth from Mitzrayim.” Often we understand this as the narrow places in our own lives. Lately I’ve been thinking about the collective mitzrayim of our democracy feeling precarious. The insurrection that we all witnessed is being rewritten as peaceful patriotism, ostensibly instigated by the FBI. Neither of those is true. But in some circles, facts themselves seem irrelevant.
I’ve heard so many of us say we just want to go back to normal. Pre-pandemic normal, or pre-insurrection normal, or maybe the “normal” back when we felt confident that things were getting better. It felt so good to believe that our nation, and our world, were inexorably moving toward a future of rights and dignity for all. But I’ve learned what a lot of people of color already knew: that trajectory was never inevitable. It takes ongoing work.
Rev. King taught that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” What he didn’t say, maybe because it was so obvious to him, is that it only does so when we keep bending it. Last year the Washington Post reported on a surprising amount of support for Christian nationalism. They also reported that many Americans embrace authoritarianism. If we want the arc of the moral universe to bend toward justice, we all have to start pushing in that direction.
Many of us live, these days, with constant awareness of crisis. And not just one crisis, but what some are now calling a polycrisis. Democracy feels fragile. Antisemitism is rising (including synagogue bomb threats that make it feel personal). There’s war in Ukraine, and in Israel and Gaza. Plus there’s the climate crisis that seems like it might actually be the end of the world as we know it. It’s exhausting. It’s spirit-crushing. It’s kotzer ruah.
According to the Public Religion Research Institute, three-quarters of Americans say that democracy itself is at risk this year. NPR says that 3 in 4 Americans believe that climate change is hurting us, and expect it to worsen. Many of us are braced against the feeling that everything is about to fall apart. We’re allowed to feel what we feel, and struggling isn’t shameful, it’s human. And, we need to make sure kotzer ruah doesn’t calcify into permanence.
The nonpartisan organization Protect Democracy notes that authoritarianism thrives on hopelessness and despair. When we despair, benefit accrues to those who are most craven in their naked pursuit of power. I can’t guarantee that our efforts this year will preserve democracy, or mitigate the climate crisis, or end poverty and injustice… but I’m pretty sure that if we allow despair to stay our hands and hearts, nothing will get better, and a lot of things will get worse.
Our nation has never yet lived up to its promise of liberty and justice for all. In 1963 Dr. King wrote, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy… Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” It’s 51 years later; that dream is not yet real. But Dr. King didn’t say, “I have a dream that racism and inequity will magically fix themselves.” He knew that those prejudices and the systems that uphold them must be changed, and that we ourselves must change them.
Torah speaks of liberation coming via God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm, but I don’t think that means we should just sit back and wait to be lifted. I find hints of that truth in this week’s Torah portion too. When God says, “I will take you to be My people,” what I hear is: we aren’t in this alone. God is with us in our tight straits, and God will be with us in the work of building a better world. And as always if the word “God” doesn’t work for you, try ideals like Justice, or Love, or Truth.
Whatever name we use to connect us with our source of meaning and hope: it’s still aleinu, it’s still on us, to build a better world. And we do this not individually but together, as a community. Building a healthy democracy will take all of us. Building healthy institutions that can support the vulnerable, pursue justice, provide education and health care and child care and elder care for everyone, will take all of us. Building a world free of reliance on fossil fuels will take all of us.
Kotzer ruah keeps us in the narrow straits of despair, feeling like there’s nothing we can do. Or the two candidates are equivalent, so voting doesn’t even matter. Or the planet is doomed, so why bother even trying. Kotzer ruah makes us feel like there’s nothing we can do. Resist that. The voice of liberation is calling. We can seek freedom from the tight squeeze of the world’s terrible brokenness around us and within us. But in order to do that, we need to not let despair win.
This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi).