July 21, 2024
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Shortened Breath and Shuttered Imaginations

Moshe’s first attempt to liberate the Jews didn’t fare well. He was mocked by Pharaoh and scorned by his own people, shocked by their increased workload. Recovering from this debacle, Moshe unveils a bold new message. He doesn’t merely speak about freedom in general, but broadcasts four specific “divine promises”—to liberate, to rescue, to redeem and to adopt the Jews as a chosen nation. These four “announcements”—known as the “four terms of redemption” or “arba leshonot geula”—are designed to sway public enthusiasm and muster support for Moshe’s revolution.

Unfortunately, the Jewish people are unmoved. They completely disregard Moshe’s assurances. Too many years of persecution and too many years of hopelessness had shuttered their imaginations and shattered their trust. Long-term prospects of nationhood or of life in Israel are too remote for them to envision. As the Torah describes, they were short of breath (kotzer ruach) and were burdened by crushing slavery (avodah kashah). For too many years, these slaves operated in “survivor mode”—putting one foot ahead of the other, merely to make it through the day. They lacked the imaginative sweep to look beyond the squalor of slavery to a more radiant future. Their vision was sealed.

Sadly, their “voice” is also muted. Moshe had hoped to rally the Jews as partners in redemption. Unfortunately, as they can barely “breathe,” they can’t be expected to invest in grandiose visions of “tomorrow.” As the makkot unfold, the Jews are completely passive, waiting on the sidelines, as Hashem dismantles Egyptian culture and sacks Egyptian pride. The slaves only “find their voice” in the days leading up to the actual liberation, hurriedly preparing for the Pesach evening ceremonies. Only when redemption is immediately at hand do they awaken. Long-term vision has been crushed by slavery. It will take some time to rebuild.

What has happened to our long-term vision in the modern world? We may not face actual bondage, but our long-term vision has been similarly suppressed. The Pharaoh that enslaves us is a faceless tyrant—the culture of busyness. We live in an ever-busy society of productivity, output and efficiency. We suffer from an ironic “paradox”: we had assumed that industrialization and technology would liberate us from the heavy toll of manual labor and improve our quality of life. Has this really occurred?

As difficult as life was under the weight of manual labor, natural regulators limited our work. Nighttime brought darkness and the cessation of industry. In the modern world, electricity has converted nighttime into day, stretching our work beyond the daytime hours. Manual labor was always intrinsically restricted: at a certain stage our bodies “gave out,” pausing human labor to allow for physical recovery. Our work is less physical, and there are no “natural limits” to how long we can work or how productive we can be. It seems as if we can always be a bit more productive if we just work a little harder or a little longer.

Our work habits have changed and so has our work space. In the past, our “spaces” more easily divided into personal and professional realms. Walking out of the “office” transitioned us into a personal space, free from professional duties. Communication technology has blurred those lines, merging our homes and our offices into one large workspace. Who knows where this is heading under the shifting sands of the pandemic? COVID-19 has “allowed” us to work remotely from home, providing a reprieve from painful commutes and nonstop business travel. In the long run, will this shift actually increase our workload? When the dust settles, will working from home merely increase our professional commitments?

We aren’t enslaved to an Egyptian murderer, but in our world of busyness, our long-term vision has also been trimmed. We, too, are short of breath and too busy to ponder long-term issues.

Regrettably, our busy world doesn’t only blind us to long-term vision. Busyness also impedes depth and appreciation of complexity. In-depth analysis of ideas requires time to ponder and to uncover multi-layered meanings. Complexity and nuanced thinking demand time, inner tranquility and mental energy. We lack all three, are becoming intellectually lazy, and inhabit a world that is becoming more and more shallow. When was the last time you quietly pondered one particular idea for more than 15 minutes? The internet has proliferated information but has slashed wisdom. In our world, action has replaced thinking—at the great cost of depth.

Our busy world isn’t only shallow but is also “labeled.” We are too busy to carefully assess people to ascertain their true character. We meet too many people to properly appraise them. Stereotypes offer us quick and easy labels that allow us to tag people and rapidly “fill in the blanks” on who they “really are.” These tags—color, gender, political affiliation, race, religion, and dress—provide easy “cutouts” of people. We live in a world of one-dimensional caricatures. Our world is too busy for individuals.

Not surprisingly, our busyness has also become addictive. At some point, society began to assign self-worth to those who appear “too busy for life.” Society convinces us that if we are busy, we must be productive and, if productive, we must be important. Busyness has become a drug that makes us feel better about ourselves. Success is metered in how packed our schedule is and how little time we have available for others. This illusion of success masks real identity and real meaning, creating a never-ending vicious cycle of busyness. We often “busy” ourselves because we are fleeing from the struggle for “meaning”; it is much easier to fill our calendars than to look in the mirror. Being busy, however, doesn’t provide true meaning and, after a while, we no longer find it satisfying. Busyness becomes more of an escape than a reality.

Faceless tyrants are always more dangerous than actual oppressors. Powerful socio-economic forces are harder to detect, and to oppose, than ruthless aggressors. Our grandparents in Egypt were incapable of long-term vision because of the stones they lifted and the lashes they absorbed. We don’t lift stones but carry heavy calendars. We don’t build pyramids but manufacture hectic schedules. It is easier to unshackle wrists than to free imaginations. We still inhabit Egypt.


The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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