A Revolutionary Interpretation of the Ralbag on the Words “M’Kotzer Ruach“
In the opening pesukim of this week’s parsha, Moshe Rabbeinu is given his mission, which includes “the famous four expressions of redemption: “Therefore, say to the Children of Israel: I am Hashem, and I shall take you out (V’Hotzaisee) from under the burdens of Egypt. I shall rescue you (V’Heetzalti) from their service. I shall redeem you (V’Ga’altee) with an out-stretched arm and with great judgments. I shall take you (V’Lakachtee) to Me for a people and I shall be a G-d to you. And you shall know that I am Hashem your G-d, Who takes you out from under the burdens of Egypt.” [Shemos 6:6-7]
Moshe Rabbeinu delivers this Divine message to Klal Yisrael. However, “they did not listen to Moshe, because of shortness of wind and hard work.” [Shemos 6:9]. They were so tired out from working that they were literally short of breath. They were so exhausted from their labors that they simply did not have peace of mind to listen to what Moshe had to tell them. “Leave us alone! We are not interested in what you have to tell us!” This is the simple reading of this Scriptural narration (P’shuto shel Mikra.)
It is somewhat strange that in Parshas Shemos, the previous parsha, the pasuk says that Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon came to the people, they showed the people the “Signs” provided by Hashem, and the reaction was quite different: “And the people believed, and they heard that Hashem had remembered the Children of Israel and that He saw their affliction, and they bowed their heads and they prostrated themselves.” [Shemos 4:31]
What transpired between the end of Chapter 4 in Parshas Shemos and the beginning of Chapter 6 in Parshas Va’Era? How, in this relatively short span of time, did they go from belief and prostration to impatience, and even disinterest?
The simple reason is that between the end of Chapter 4 and the beginning of Chapter 6, the amount of work imposed on Bnei Yisrael was greatly increased. They now had to find their own straw, while still maintaining the same brick quotas. Perhaps the situation deteriorated to the extent that even though they listened the first time, by the second time they were simply too exhausted to listen anymore. That would be the superficial interpretation.
The Ralbag says a mind-boggling idea. He interprets that the words “v’lo sham-oo el Moshe m’kotzer ruach…” are not referring to “shortness of breath” (one interpretation of the words kotzer ruach) and the words kotzer ruach are not even referring to the people! The Ralbag interprets that the words kotzer ruach are referring to Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe was “knocked for a loop” – he was somewhat dispirited by recent events, which lead to his kotzer ruach.
At the very end of Parshas Shemos, Moshe complains to the Ribono shel Olam: “My L-rd, why have You harmed this people. Why have You sent me? From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name he harmed this people, but You did not rescue Your people!” [Shemos 5:23] Moshe apparently expected that he would come to Pharaoh with the Divine message, Pharaoh would listen to him, and the people would be out! That is not how it happened.
Instead, the situation deteriorated. Moshe Rabbeinu, the leader of the Jewish people, the leader who feels the pain and frustration of the people, was broken and depressed by this outcome. His spirt was broken. That is precisely the interpretation of the words “m’kotzer ruach“—from shortness of spirit.
The first time Moshe came and addressed the people with the message of Divine Promise of redemption, he spoke with spirit, with conviction, and with optimism. The people believed him, because he believed in himself. The second time, Moshe still believed what Hashem told him, but it was not with the same conviction. He was not able to deliver the message to the people as powerfully as he had in Parshas Shemos. He could now only deliver it “with shortness of spirit”. Therefore, the people did not listen to him.
We have mentioned a similar thought in past years. The question has been asked: Noach was building the Teiva (Ark) for 120 years. Yet in all those 120 years, he was not successful in bringing back a single sinner to the proper moral path. In Parshas Lech Lecha, we learn about the Patriarch Avraham and “the souls he made in Haran.” He introduced a revolutionary belief of monotheism in the world to a great mass of people. Why is it that Noach was not a successful influencer and Avraham was?
One of the answers offered is that Chazal say that Noach himself was “m’ktanei amanna“—he was from those who have only a modicum of belief. In other words, he believed, and he did not believe. Chazal tell us on the pasuk “Noach … entered the Teiva because of the flood waters” [Bereishis 7:7] that he figuratively had to be forced into the Teiva. In other words, he did not fully believe that the destruction was going to happen until he saw it happening before his very eyes. Even though the Torah gives him accolades that he was a “perfect righteous person”, Chazal insist that his faith was somewhat deficient.
If someone is at all deficient in his own faith, he cannot have a positive effect on other people. Avraham was found to be “faithful before You” [Nechemia 26:8]. His faith was unshakeable. Therefore, he could influence others. Noach, on the other hand, could not have the same effect. If someone does not believe it 100%, he cannot have an effect on other people.
The Ralbag is not suggesting that there was any doubt on the part of Moshe Rebeinu in the eventual geula. However, now Moshe’s message was delivered me’kotzer ruach. It was not with the same oomph as previously because he felt he failed in his mission to Pharaoh. The Egyptian king did not listen to him. On the contrary, matters became worse since he began his mission. This deflated Moshe’s spirt and therefore his second message, which was delivered out of “shortness of spirit” (kotzer ruach), was not at all effective.
Meshech Chochma’s Amazing Interpretation Regarding the Tribes of Reuvain, Shimon and Levi
The pasuk says, “Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon and commanded them regarding the Children of Israel and regarding Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.” [Shemos 6:13]. What does it mean “commanded them regarding the Children of Israel and regarding Pharaoh, king of Egypt?” Rashi says “Regarding the Children of Israel” – He commanded Moshe and Aharon to lead them calmly, and to be patient with them; “Regarding Pharaoh, king of Egypt” – He commanded them to accord honor to him with their words.
Following this, the Torah launches into a very strange parsha. The Torah presents a genealogy, which we know already, beginning, “These are the heads of their fathers’ houses: The sons of Reuvain the firstborn of Israel…” [Shemos 6:14]. Following that are a list of Shimon’s sons, and following that are a list of Levi’s sons. Finally, in pasuk 20, the pasuk says, “Amram took Yocheved his aunt as a wife, and she bore him Aharon and Moshe.
What is the purpose of all this? We already know who the descendants of Reuvain and Shimon were from Parshas Vayigash. The Torah repeats it again in the beginning of Parshas Shemos. Why is it necessary to hear again a repetition of the Yichus of Reuvain, Shimon, and Levi in the middle of this edge-of-your-seat-narrative, until finally we get to the Yichus of Moshe and Aharon?
Rashi says that the Torah wants to inform us who Moshe Rabbeinu is, so it traces his genealogy back to Levi. Once we start with Levi, the Torah wants to start at the “top of the family,” and first traces the uncles and cousins back to Reuvain and Shimon. That is why this is in here. Rashi teaches the simple reading of these pesukim (P’shuto shel Mikra).
The Meshech Chochma (Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk’s commentary on Chumash) says an incredible thing. He suggests that there were Jews in Egypt – the prominent, the affluent – who were themselves slave owners. Who did they own? They owned Jewish slaves. How did they acquire these Jewish slaves? There was a slave trade. He allows for the possibility that wealthy Jewish noblemen bought Jewish slaves from the Egyptians. He goes a step further: Who were these noblemen – the Jews who owned the Jewish slaves? He suggests that perhaps they were members of the three tribes: Reuvain, Shimon, and Levi!
From where does Rav Meir Simcha get this wild interpretation? He cites a Medrash in Parsahs Nasso, which mentions this very idea! The Medrash suggests that a few tribes did in fact conduct themselves in an aristocratic fashion (hinheegu serara) in Egypt, and it was in fact these three tribes! They were the noblemen and the elite within Jewish society.
Rav Meir Simcha says this knowledge sheds a whole new light on the pasuk: “Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon and commanded them regarding the Children of Israel and regarding Pharaoh, king of Egypt…” Rav Meir Simcha in fact quotes an interpretation from the Talmud Yerushalmi (The Jerusalem Talmud) on this very pasuk: Hashem commanded Moshe and Aharon regarding the Children of Israel and regarding Pharaoh, king of Egypt – about sending free their slaves!” The command was nothing other than the first Emancipation Proclamation to free all the slaves!
We understand why Pharaoh has to hear the Emancipation Proclamation, but what do the Children of Israel have to do with it? The answer, says Rav Meir Simcha, is that some of them owned slaves as well! Reuvain, Shimon, and Levi were slave owners! They were the elite of Jewish society. They were the noblemen. That is why they are mentioned here – because this command affects them, and all the families enumerated in these pesukim spelling out their family trees.
This amazing interpretation would mean that these three tribes were not part of the Egyptian enslavement. If you are a slave-owner, you clearly are not a slave. Why was this the case? We know from other sources that Levi was exempt. This was the family of the priesthood, and there was a long-standing law in Egyptian society that gave special status to priestly families (clergy exemptions). But why were Reuvain and Shimon exempt?
The Meshech Chochma suggests a reason why specifically these three tribes demonstrated aristocratic practices in Egypt. The Medrash states that the Jewish people did not assimilate or intermingle in Egypt and, in fact, even Tribes did not intermarry with one another. The reason for this was that they had a tradition from the Patriarch Yaakov that they would return to the Land of Canaan, and that each tribe would receive their own geographic portion in Eretz Yisrael. The Tribes felt, “We may not have a present, but we have a future!” My present may be horrible, but if I have a future I am not going to give up and throw in the towel.
However, Rav Mayer Simcha says that the Patriarch Yaakov did not bless Reuvain, Shimon and Levi. Their father cursed them. Reuvain, in fact, did not receive a portion in Eretz Yisrael. He wound up taking his portion in Ever Hayarden (Trans-Jordan). Regarding Shimon and Levi, Yaakov said, “Accursed is their rage for it is mighty, and their wrath for it is harsh; I will divide them in Jacob, and I will disperse them in Israel” [Bereishis 49:7]. Neither tribe received a contiguous portion in the Land of Israel.
If I have no present and I have no future, I might as well throw in the towel. What am I waiting for? Rav Mayer Simcha says that the Almighty did them a great favor. He said, “You are not going to be slaves. You are going to be free men. You are even going to own your own slaves.” That gave them something on which to hang. They may have thought they would not have a future, but by owning slaves, they could think, “At least I am somebody!”
The rest of Klal Yisrael had the pot at the end of the rainbow waiting for them. They had what to hold on to that made it worth remaining Jewish and not giving up their identities as Children of Israel. However, if the three eldest tribes had a bleak future (in addition to a bleak present) they would be very vulnerable, psychologically, to totally giving up their Jewish identities.
Rav Meir Simcha says that if they had been enslaved like all their brethren, they would have intermingled with the Egyptians, feeling that their destiny was not amongst the Children of Israel. Therefore, Divine Providence saw to it that they themselves not become enslaved with backbreaking labor with bricks and mortar – which might very well have been the psychological straw to break the camel’s back!.
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem [email protected]
Technical Assistance by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected]
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly Torah portion. A listing of the halachic portions for Parshas Va’eyra is provided below:
- # 039 – Shabbos Emergency: Who Do We Call?
- # 082 – Astrology: Is It For Us?
- # 130 – The Issur of Entering a Church
- # 177 – Magic Shows: More Than Meets the Eye
- # 223 – Learning in Kollel: Is It Always Permitted?
- # 267 – Do Secular Names of G-d Have Kedusha?
- # 313 – Converting a Church Into a Shul
- # 357 – Birchas Hamotzi
- # 401 – Kadima B’brachos — Hierarchy of Brochos
- # 445 – Shoveling Snow on Shabbos
- # 489 – Denying Jewishness
- # 533 – Shin Shel Tefillin & Ohr Echad
- # 577 – Davening For Non-Jews
- # 621 – Kosher Cheese Continued – Cottage Cheese and Butter
- # 665 – Checking Out Families for Shidduchim
- # 709 – Kavod Malchus & Secular Kings
- # 753 – Making Hamotzei – Not As Simple As It Seems
- # 797 – Sheva Brachos at the Seder
- # 841 – Serving McDonalds To Your Non-Jewish Employees
- # 885 – Davening Out Loud – A Good Idea?
- # 929 – The Bracha of Al Hamichya
- # 972 – Is Islam Avodah Zarah?
- #1016 – The Magician Who Became a Baal Teshuva
- #1060 – Bentching on a Kos; Making Brochos with Children
- #1103 – Davening In Front of a Tzelem
- #1146 – Polling Place/AA Meeting in a Bais Avodah Zara – A Problem?
- #1189 – Can You Wear Your Tzitzes in the Bathroom?
- #1233 – Mutar To Say Mumbai, Corpus Christi and Even Satmar and Sans? – Why Not?
- #1277 – Snow Shailos
- #1321 – Should You Make A Bracha on Seeing President Donald Trump?
- #1365 – Giving the Benefit of the Doubt – Does it Apply to Everyone?
A complete catalogue can be ordered from the Yad Yechiel Institute, PO Box 511, Owings Mills MD 21117-0511. Call (410) 358-0416 or e-mail [email protected] or visit http://www.yadyechiel.org/ for further information.