I think one of the saddest pieces of text comes in this week’s parasha, Va’era: “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits were crushed by hard labor” (Ex. 6:9)
Moses has finally been convinced to lobby on behalf of the enslaved Israelites, preparing to come before Pharoah and ask for their freedom. But first, Moses has to convince the people that he is acting on God’s instructions. God tells Moses: “Say to the Israelites I am Adonai. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery. I will take you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary measures. (This should sound pretty familiar from the Passover Seder) And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God…..I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…” (Ex. 6:6-8)
“Lovely, but whom did you say was calling?” Can’t you just imagine the people confronting Moses with this kind of response? After hundreds of years, how would these enslaved people have been able to maintain any loyalty to a God, to one who would save them, to one who made a promise to …..who was that again? Abraham, Isaac and…who are these guys?
Some commentators say that the reason the people didn’t jump up and say, “We’re in!” was because they had become too assimilated into Egyptian culture, so they didn’t recognize how far they had moved away from God. Their “crushed spririts” came from worshiping idols. That’s blaming the victims. However, Ramban (aka Nachmanides, 13th c Spain) says that it’s not that they didn’t believe in God, it’s just that they were under such pressure from their labors that they didn’t have a moment to themselves to think.
Ok, Ramban, but I think it’s deeper than that. The question isn’t “Do you believe in God or not?” I think generations of broken backs and broken families make it almost impossible to imagine a time or place that is different than the reality faced daily. The last thing the Israelites were going to do was fall for a sales pitch from some guy that they’d never seen before, coming into the community to tell them he was going to help them “get free”. But clearly, they couldn’t see a way out on their own; they needed that “outside” guy to envision something they themselves couldn’t.
Imagination atrophies without hope, so how can you free a people that have stopped imagining freedom? How do you bring hope to such hopelessness? The people couldn’t hear Moses because they had stopped believing in themselves, stopped seeing themselves as anything but slaves.
Convincing an entire nation that they could be more than they could imagine for themselves was a slow process. Frankly, it didn’t end when they followed Moses out of Egypt – they challenged his leadership all over the wilderness. But they took the first step, literally, into the water, and had faith they weren’t going to drown.
Today, people all over the world are afraid to take that first step, that if they give up the “devil they know”, they’ll drown from the “devil they don’t know.” The Springs, the Tentifadas, the Occupy-ers, the 99% are suffering from crushed spirits from their hard labor. But just the existence of such movements, indeed, the sound of the voices reverberating throughout the public spaces shows that people’s spirits aren’t entirely crushed. They can hear the voice of Moses, and it’s coming from within themselves.