When Moshe first approached Pharaoh to free Klal Yisrael, Pharaoh moved to intensify our oppression. While our situation was bad enough to prompt us to seek relief, it was evidently not intense enough to prevent us from hoping to achieve it. And so, in response to our renewed hopes for redemption, Pharaoh tightened his grip on us and made our work harder and lonelier—knowing that this would preclude us from yearning for bigger and better things (Shemos, 5:8-9). His strategy worked.
When Moshe approached Klal Yisrael with a new message and commitment from God to our deliverance, we did not listen—we could not hear—Moshe’s words due to our kotzer ruach—our shortness of breath, or more accurately—our shriveled spirit (Shemos, 6:9). Oppressed and pressured, we experienced a shrinkage of the spirit, of our aspirations and hopes. We were so stuck in the burdens of Egypt that even a hopeful and reassuring promise from God failed to resonate within us.
That is burnout. It is a shortness of both sight and spirit, borne of constant burdens. There are times, when the unrelenting pressures and concerns of life—and the chronic busyness that fills our days—get in the way of our thinking bigger, of our ability to even hope or yearn for anything beyond getting through the tasks at hand. Pharaoh was especially aware of this phenomenon and used it tactically against us, but—too often—we use it against ourselves.
We can avoid burnout, when we expand the spirit by pausing to allow ourselves to see the bigger picture of what we are doing; when we do not just see the pile of responsibilities and worries in front of us, but the greater mission that we seek to accomplish. We can get off the treadmill and take a breath—allowing ourselves to reflect on what it is all about. We must do those things that expand our ruach, our spirit, and then, we can dream of all that lies beyond today’s burdens and responsibilities.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU), the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization.