Vaera: Making Space for Freedom
At the end of last week’s reading, Moses demanded that Pharaoh let the Israelites go. Instead of releasing them, Pharaoh made their work more strenuous. So it should come as no surprise that in this week’s reading (Vaera/I Appeared) that a second promise of redemption was met with skepticism by the Israelites, despite the fact that God told Moses exactly what to say to them.
Moses spoke to the Children of Israel, but they did not hear Moses out of shortness of ruakh and harsh labor. (Exodus 6:9)
The Hebrew word “ruakh” means both “breath” and “spirit”, and in this context both translations are appropriate. We know from experience that arduous physical labor will leave us breathless, but we may not realize that emotional stress also changes our breathing patterns. We react physically to threats, whether physical or emotional. Our bellies contract and tighten and that action reduces the space available for our lungs to expand. Our breath is quite literally shortened. We find ourselves enslaved in an internal Mitzrayim/Egypt, an inner place of constriction (Mitzrayim can be translated as “narrow or constricted place”).
A Hasidic commentary on Vaera asks why God decided to free the Israelites at this particular point in time. According to this text, God saw that they were starting to accept their bondage and understood that it was now or never. Rashi offers another explanation: they stopped believing that redemption was possible.
Vaera gives voice to the internal experience of despair
Although I’ve never been a slave (thank God!), I do know what long-term, pervasive stress feels like. My world contracts; I feel frightened and hopeless and trapped. I lose all sense of perspective, and I feel permeated by despair. I sink into a distorted kind of survival mode in which I perceive everything as a threat. I stop listening to other points of view, and eventually I start accepting this level of stress (and the conditions that give rise to it) as normal.
The Gerer Rebbe offers an insightful teaching on the inability to hear when we are feeling desperate: in order to truly hear, we have to be empty. Although it seems counterintuitive–we tend to feel depleted rather than full under these circumstances–when we feel depressed or burned out, we are actually full to overflowing.
If I can step back even momentarily and pay attention to my experience, I discover that my mind is full of catastrophizing thoughts, dark emotions, and despairing ruminations. No wonder I can’t hear promises of redemption any more than Vaera’s enslaved Israelites could. There is simply no room for them.
I’ve discovered that there is only one way for me to work with this kind of mind state: I have to do whatever it takes to create some empty space in my soul. Sometimes I’m so depleted that the practices that usually keep me balanced and clear are more than I can handle. I don’t have the strength, or the will, and sometimes I even stop believing in their efficacy. When that happens, I know I need an external liberator in the form of therapy, medication and/or other mind/body treatments.
I know that these things don’t work for everyone. But for many of us, they open a space that allows us to once again hear the voice of wisdom and of possibility. And once that space is opened, I can get back on the cushion and back to the sacred work of seeing through the thoughts and feelings that have enslaved me.
And there, in the empty space of a quiet mind, I can finally hear the messages that the Holy Blessed One has been trying to send me all along: you are not meant to be a slave.
May you be blessed…
May you be blessed to be free from all forms of oppression whether internal or external. May you discover the fruitful emptiness that gives rise to insight. And may you grow in your capacity to receive words of liberation whenever you need them.
Ameyn, keyn yehi ratzon. Amen, may it be God’s will.