By Rabbi Kimberly Herzog Cohen
When Moses conveyed God’s message to the Israelites — that God hears their cries and will deliver them from bondage — they closed their ears. V’lo shamu el-Moshe mikotzer ruach u’me-avodah kashah (Exodus 6:9). The Israelites would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.
You might say, what’s new? The Israelites do this throughout the desert journey! But “mikotzer ruach” is a term to take note of, as it is not one we find too often in the Torah. The root of kotzer means “to be shortened,” so the spirits of the Israelites had reached their limit.
Instead of possessing an expansive imagination, a sense of possibility, the Israelites’ world became smaller, more closed, and diminished in hope. They could not hear God’s message of new beginnings and change because their spiritual bandwidth just didn’t have the capacity to really listen. And can you blame them? After such suffering and oppression?
We find the very same phrase “mikotzer ruach” when Job replies to his friend Zophar. Zophar responds to Job’s suffering with the explanation that Job must have sinned and, therefore, is deserving of punishment. And in response Job says, “Listen well to what I say, and let that be your consolation. Bear with me while I speak…. Why should I not lose my patience? V’im maduah lo-tikzar ruchi?” (Job 21:1-4). Why should I not be diminished in spirit? Don’t try and offer some reward and punishment explanation where there is none, Job says! But what you can do is acknowledge my pain, and be there for me, my friend…
So yes, it is certainly understandable that the Israelites’ spirits are diminished. Like Job, we are empathetic in the face of their suffering. And in our own lives we know that change is hard. We can close our ears to a new message or idea. Because sometimes we don’t even know change is necessary. Because it is hard to commit to a different path forward. Because sometimes we aren’t realistic about what is achievable. Because often it is easier to tell others they need to change, and we don’t. Because we are fearful. Because it is hard to let go and accept something new. When it comes to change, sometimes it just feels simpler to hold tight to the old, even if it can enslave us, even if our spirits become shortened.
The root of kotzer can mean “to be shortened” but it also can mean “reap, harvest, join together.” A well-known use of the word kotzer with the meaning “reap, harvest, join together” is Psalm 126:5: Those who sow in tears, shall reap with songs of joy (b’rinah yiktzoru). In this single, seemingly simple verse, we learn of the possibility to turn kotzer ruach, a diminished spirit, into rinah yikzoru, into songs reaped in joy; a soul that is shortened, into a sense of hope and promise.
And when that sense of promise begins to pervade our hearts and souls, then we can better turn our ears to new messages and new ways of thinking. We can better lift our eyes to the possibilities still before us as we make our way. And part of the way we move forward, and discover new beginnings, is to remember that we do not walk life’s path alone — b’rinah yiktzoru — they shall reap in songs of joy. They shall reap…and on this Shabbat, we pray that we shall reap too.
Kimberly Herzog Cohen is associate rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas and a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.