At the beginning of Parashat VaEira, after Moshe reports Hashem’s promise to redeem His people, the response of Bnei Yisrael is as follows: “VeLo Shame’u El Moshe MiKotzer Ruach UMeiAvodah Kashah,” “And they [Bnei Yisrael] did not listen to Moshe from shortness of spirit and from hard labor” (Shemot 6:9).
Ostensibly, when the Torah relates that Bnei Yisrael do not listen to Moshe, it is speaking disparagingly about them. A loss in faith would be understandable as Moshe and Aharon caused an increased workload at the end of last week’s Parashah.
Indeed, Seforno takes this approach. He explains that the Pasuk means Bnei Yisrael didn’t even entertain the thought of trusting in Hashem’s salvation. According to Seforno, this generation of Jews was punished for their lack of faith, so only their children entered Israel. Although we typically associate the punishment of those who died in the desert with the sin of the spies, it seems that according to Seforno the lack of faith in Hashem’s ability to successfully bring them into Israel began here, rather than with the Meraglim.
Ramban and Rashbam take the opposite approach to our Pasuk. They explain that despite the hard labor, Bnei Yisrael still had complete faith in Moshe and Hashem. They simply could not divert their attention from their work lest the Egyptians beat or kill them. Thus, Kotzer Ruach actually means fear, not shortness of spirit. This also explains the apparent redundancy in the Pasuk of ‘Kotzer Ruach’ and ‘Avodah Kashah.’ Avodah Kashah is work, while Kotzer Ruach refers to fear of Egyptian violence.
Ralbag presents a novel interpretation of Kotzer Ruach. In his opinion, Kotzer Ruach actually applies to Moshe. Bnei Yisrael do not listen to or accept Moshe’s message because of Moshe’s own uncertainty. After all, Parashat Shemot ended with Moshe himself expressing doubt at Hashem for having sent him, as he says, “Lamah Zeh Shelachtani,” “Why have You [Hashem] sent me?” (Shemot 5:22). Whether or not Bnei Yisrael actually heard Moshe say this, they were certainly aware of his disposition. With their leader himself in doubt, how could we expect Bnei Yisrael to maintain faith in Hashem?
Moshe was charged with transmitting the truth of our tradition to the people. This generation was fortunate in the sense that its faith in redemption did not have to rest on commitment to a tradition. It witnessed Hashem’s will to redeem it with open miracles. Similarly, it followed the precepts of the Torah because it experienced Matan Torah.
Future generations were charged with the challenge presented at the beginning of our Parashah: Would Bnei Yisrael believe that Hashem would keep His promise to the Avot just a few generations earlier? We see from Ralbag that the key to successful transmission of Hashem’s word is confidence and trust in its leaders and teachers. If children note a trace of skepticism in their parents, then there is little hope of them exhibiting a strong commitment to the Torah and its values.
The popular, somewhat cynical saying, “Do as I say, not as I do,” implies that if parents would actually say, “Do as I do,” children would surely follow because the parents are modeling. Unfortunately, nowadays we cannot expect even that to be true. For each generation further from Sinai, the transmission of Torah and a life committed to Torah and Mitzvot becomes more of a challenge. For our children it is not enough to just do; the doing must be followed with explanation. Don’t just do as I do, because I know you’ll find many justifications to abstain. Instead, allow me to explain why I do what I do. Let us replace our own shortness of spirit with an extension of spirit, an affirmation of our religion and faith that we share with our children.