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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Quiet Time

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

In today’s parsha we read how Moshe argued with G-d about his competence to carry G-d’s message to Pharaoh to release the Jews. “The children of Israel did not listen to me,” he says, “Why should Pharaoh?” (Exod. 6:12). This is a form of argument, widely used by the Rabbis of the Talmud, know as a “kal vechomer”: If something is the case under certain circumstances, then even more is it so under other (stronger) circumstances. In this case it goes: If the children of Israel, who have everything to gain from my mission, ignore me, then why shouldn’t Pharaoh, who has everything to lose?

Halachos are often decided by an appeal to “kal vechomer”. But it must be watertight, the logic must be impeccable, otherwise the whole argument collapses. Now if we go back a couple of verses, to see why the Israelites ignored Moshe, we read: “And Moshe spoke thus to the children of Israel, but they did not listen, from `kotser ruach’ and from hard bondage” (6:9). What does “kotser ruach” mean? Literally, “shortness of spirit (or wind)”. It is also translated as “broken spirit” or “failure of spirit”, referring to the Israelites’ degradation. It is then no wonder that they did not want to listen to Moshe. Pharaoh, however, living in comfort in his palace, would not be in the same position, and might very well be receptive to Moshe’s message. So the “kal vechomer” seems to fall flat! But can we suppose that Moshe Rabbeinu would use a weak Rabbinical argument?

The answer to this problem could lie in an explanation of the phrase “kotser ruach” that I read recently in the Sforno. He explains it as a lack of awareness of, or an inability to reflect on, one’s circumstances. This is something which afflicts a lot of people, whom I would like to call “kotser-ruachniks”. Many of us are incapable of appreciating what happens to us, of reflecting on it, and of judging intelligently how we should respond.

Let me mention just one instance of this—thoughtlessness in speaking to people. I think it is a common experience for us to hear that someone has been offended by us, and to respond by protesting (sincerely): But I never meant to offend him! He misunderstood me!

In my Yeshiva, one of the Rabbis had a reputation for waiting a long time before giving an answer to anyone with a question. The questioner would have to wait 20 or 30 minutes before getting a response. (When it came, by the way, it was always good.) This caused some comment, and, because I was very close to this Rabbi, I thought I should go and discuss this with him. So I went to him and said: “Reb ---, many people comment on the way you pause so long before answering someone.” His answer to me (after 20 minutes) was: “You know, I could speak as fast as anyone else here, if I wanted to. But I have a custom of thinking over, in my mind, exactly what I want to say. That way, I can be sure I’ll never hurt anyone thoughtlessly.” And I remember thinking: “You are right to pause like that!” For it seemed to work—this Rabbi had a reputation for never offending anyone.

Back to Pharaoh and the Israelites: how does “kotser ruach” apply here? We can see how it applies to the Israelites: from the depths of their servitude, we can see that they were not in a position to reflect intelligently on their situation. However Pharaoh was also a kotser-ruachnik! We read that before some of the plagues (the first, fourth and seventh) Moshe and Aharon met him in the morning on the banks of the Nile. What was he doing there? According to a Midrash (quoted by Rashi), Pharaoh studied the times of the tides of the Nile carefully, and enter the river at precisely the moment that the water began to rise, so that it should appear to be rising to honor him. Further, while bathing he took the opportunity to relieve himself, so that he need never go to the bathroom the rest of the day, which he used as proof that he was a god! What is more, says the Midrash, he himself believed this! The fact that he should fall for his own crude propaganda, which any child could see through, shows that Pharaoh himself suffered from kotser ruach. Thus Moshe’s “kal vechomer” was good.

What can we do about kotser ruach? I would like to prescribe an exercise. We should all set aside a “quiet time” every day—just five minutes, or even one minute—when we can reflect calmly and thoughtfully on our own situation. If we were to do this, one of the results would be to realize all our daily benefits from G-d, and we would respond by raising our level of observance and commitment to the Torah. 

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