The following is a piece from the Refuat Hanefesh column “Struggling Together: Mental Health in The Torah”. In this column, Tzivia Appleman draws on her time studying in Israel, as well as her passion for enhancing society’s mental health views, to propose ways we can understand the emotional state and struggles of the characters and leaders of Tanach many of us grew up with. The opinions shared in this column as they relate to characters in Tanach are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of Refuat Hanefesh.
How Did The People Feel?
What was the morale of the Jewish people like during their time as slaves? At the opening of Sefer Shemot, they had been in slavery for so long — 210 years! Was freedom even conceivable? Even more confusing, the savior of the Jewish people was revealed to be the most unlikely character: Moshe, who grew up in Pharaoh’s palace! Why should they trust Moshe, a total outsider? Perhaps he was working with the Egyptian regime! Why hope at all?
In order to delve into this further, we must look into the Pshat (simple reading) of the text of Shemot.
Pesukim (Verses) From Shemot
Surprisingly, there are very few instances where we read about the Jewish People’s emotions and reactions.
In verses 2:23-25, Moshe’s life story is interrupted by an emotional description of Bnei Yisrael’s reaction to their torture, consisting of screaming, crying, groaning. Their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God, and God heard them, remembered the covenant, saw them, and knew them.
These verses are vague. Firstly, did the people know that God heard them? Were they even attempting to pray, or were they just crying out aimlessly from the pain? The well-regarded commentary Sforno says that they cried out of frustration about their miserable fate and their enslavement. At this point in Jewish history, it wouldn’t be surprising if they lost faith in God altogether, amongst all of their travails.
Regarding Moshe, we find that the people actually believed in him and that God has seen their pain: “And the people were convinced. When they heard that the LORD had taken note of the Israelites and that He had seen their plight, they bowed low in homage.”(4:31) So, now it’s safe to say that the people believed in God’s miracles and messenger to some degree. Why did they take that leap of faith? They only believed Moshe after he showed them miraculous signs. Does that imply the notion of “seeing is believing?”
In chapter five, we see an act of civil disobedience by the Jewish officers. They confront Pharaoh and yell at him for increasing the workload of the people after Moshe had tried to convince him to let the Jewish people go. In verse 5:21, these officers direct this anger at Moshe himself and say to him, “May the LORD look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers—putting a sword in their hands to slay us.” Although Moshe clearly had positive intent, the people were upset at him for worsening their conditions of slavery.
The Jewish People Spurn The Prospect of Salvation
The last information we see regarding the people’s emotions appears in verse 6:9. Moshe told the people that they will be saved, but they didn’t listen to him because they were “of weak spirit and hard work.” What does “weak spirit” mean? And what is implied by the phrase “they didn’t listen to him”? The commentators have a wide array of interpretations:
- Rashi: “If one is in anguish his breath comes in short gasps and he cannot draw long breaths.”
- Ramban: The Jewish people still believed in God and His miracles. They just couldn’t bear to listen at that moment due to their level of pain. Some of them didn’t even want to live anymore. The people were also still afraid of the Egyptians, thanks to the Jewish officers’ comment about “putting a sword in their hands to slay us.”
- Sforno: The people didn’t have the headspace, and the concept of freedom was inconceivable to their present state of mind so that their heart could not even comprehend such a promise.
- Chizkuni: They were too afraid to accept what Moshe said to them on account of the recent worsening of their condition, which was a result of Pharaoh’s reaction to Moses’ intervention. Pharaoh had succeeded at this stage in making the people forget their dreams of freedom — or at least improved conditions — by burdening them with additional hard labor.
- Or HaChaim: The people had good reason for becoming impatient with their fate. When Moshe had initially come, he had given them hope that their liberation was close at hand. This had given them a new and broader perspective on life. Now, when Pharaoh had decreed additional hardships, their minds could concentrate only on how to cope with the immediate and even worse situation.
Drawing Conclusions from the Pesukim (Verses)
At first, the Jewish slaves were in total agony and anguish. However, once Moshe showed them his signs, they believed him. With that in mind, we can now suggest two possible theories about the true meaning of “they didn’t listen to him”:
1) They still believed in him, but they were just too exhausted to actually pay attention.
2) Originally they believed in him, but once he was rejected by Pharoah (who made their situation even worse) they lost faith. The people were tired of believing in false hope, exhausted of relying on broken promises.
Following Moshe to The Brink of Destruction
So, after all of this, why did they still follow Moshe to the Yam Suf (Red Sea) which ultimately split, while the Egyptian army was close behind in pursuit?
I believe we can learn a very important lesson here about fear and hope. In Letters from a Stoic, the great philosopher Seneca wrote, “Widely different [as fear and hope] are, the two of them march in unison like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed to. Fear keeps pace with hope … both belong to a mind in suspense, to a mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future. Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present.”
The emotions of fear and hope are equally dangerous. Both are examinations of the future based on current circumstances. Both create anxieties or expectations based on indefinite factors. The cure to fear and hope, therefore, is to focus on the present. What can I do right now about my situation? Or, in the context of the Jewish people, one can look at it as follows: They are being offered a possible path to freedom. What do they have to lose?! Regardless of what happens in the future, the best option for them right now is to follow Moshe.
But is hope always a dangerous thing?
In light of the paralysis caused by fear,
Hope is what propels us forward.
It’s what motivated us to keep going.
Hope is the last to die.
Maybe what’s dangerous
Is hope or fear predicated on the present?
Because fate isn’t final
And destiny can change.
Because our hope is not yet lost
We do not fear the fright of the night
Our hope is the last to die.
And we are not afraid.
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