The story the Torah tells us in Va–‘Era should be familiar, since we review it every year at the Seder. In my most recent book, As If We Were There: Readings for a Transformative Passover Experience, I sought to show aspects of the story we sometimes miss, such as how challenging it might have been to be a member of the Jewish people at the time of the Exodus. I believe the Torah requires us to keep these events in mind partially to ready us to handle future situations with a better awareness of Hashem and how best to serve Hashem than the characters in the original story succeeded at displaying.
The two examples I offer here show why we need such reminders, show how hard it might be to do what is required of us, absent assiduous preparation.
What We Are Able to Hear
Shemot 6:9 tells us the Jewish people did not listen to Moshe when he announced Hashem’s imminent rescue mi-kotzer ruach u-me-‘avodah kashah, due to their shortness of spirit and hard labor. Ramban picks up on the verse’s implication the people believed Moshe, but their shortness of spirit and hard labor made them incapable or unwilling to pay attention. We can allow troubles to overwhelm us, to close us to salvation, no matter how certain or wonderful.
Ramban thinks the “shortness of spirit” meant a fear of death [they were convinced the Jewish people would leave Egypt, doubted they themselves would live to see it, because Par’oh would kill them. Since the verse seems to look down on them for their attitude, I think Ramban would say we need to be happy about more fortunate times coming to the nation, regardless of our personal fates].
Besides the kotzer ruach, shortness of spirit, the verse tells us the ‘avodah kashah, the hard work, also hardened them to Moshe’s words. Ramban reads “hard work” as the pressure the Egyptians placed on the Jews, which denied them the time or mental space to absorb his message. He implicitly warns us to avoid their error, reminds us to make sure we never let worries and pressures—however real and/or valid—deafen us to what we should be hearing.
The Clarity of Moshe’s Messages
For our second lesson from Ramban, let’s look at Shemot 6:10, the first instance—as far as I can tell—of a phrase which peppers the rest of the Torah, Hashem spoke to Moshe leimor. Ramban rejects the usual translation of leimor, “saying;” he reads it as to make a matter completely clear and understood. The Torah uses it to assure us Hashem spoke to Moshe clearly enough to leave no doubt as to what was said, no hints or allusions Moshe might have missed.
Ramban thinks the phrase appears often to remind all readers of the uniqueness of his prophetic experience. Rather than visions which need interpreting or inference, the Torah records exact words Hashem said to Moshe. To see Ramban already understand the Torah to make the point reminds us people have struggled with the divinity of the text for longer than modern heretics would like to admit. It’s not our current sophistication which makes us “realize” the difficulties of believing in a divine text, it’s part of the human condition to resist accepting a phenomenon with no parallels in our lived experience.
The difficulties have multiplied in our times, when the idea of objective truth itself is under attack. Ramban reads this well-known phrase as the antidote. With all the complications in sifting partial truths—which halachah knows well, encapsulated in phrases such as “seventy faces to Torah” or “these and these are the words of the Living Gd”– Orthodox Jews also declare our certainty of one document of objective truth, the Torah Hashem told to Moshe leimor.
The Warning to Us
Ramban frequently points to the Exodus as a singular example of Hashem’s involvement with the world. The two examples we’ve studied show how easily we can miss those messages. We might be in too unfortunate a work or life situation to find the psychological room to pay attention, or might deny or question the clarity with which Hashem communicated the Torah.
As an undercurrent of these and other of his comments, I think Ramban wanted us to consider how much better the outcome would have been had the Jews been more open to what was coming their way. How would Jewish history have looked if the Jews had been able to hear Moshe, had fought through their shortness of spirit and harshness of work to be enthusiastic about the news? How would our own observance and connection to Hashem improve if we accepted the truth of leimor, of the uniquely clear revelation which granted us the Torah?
We’ll only know if we start to work on absorbing all the messages of the Exodus, beyond the ones we cast in iron when we learned them at a young age.