One of the first and most central interventions to help manage difficult emotions is deep breathing. When we feel intense emotions, such as anxiety, depression, or anger, our bodies tend to react physiologically by taking shorter and shallower breaths. By counteracting those quick and narrow breaths with deeper breaths, we increase the supply of oxygen to our brains and signal to our bodies that we can calm down.
As strange as this might sound, deep breathing often requires training and practice. Many people take deep breaths with their upper chest, which can actually increase one’s breathing rate and cause hyperventilation. An effective deep breath is known as diaphragmatic or belly breathing, because it is done by focusing the breath below the rib cage, with the stomach moving, rather than the chest.
Toward the end of Parshat Shemot, we are informed that Bnei Yisrael were convinced and believed redemption was coming after they saw the signs Moshe performed and learned that G-d took note of their hardships (Shemot 4:30-31). Yet, in the beginning of Parshat Va’eira when Moshe elaborates on the message of redemption, Bnei Yisrael do not listen “mi’kotzer ruach u’me’avodah kasha – from shortness of breath and from hard work” (Shemot 6:8).
Many commentators understand these to be two distinct reasons (see Ohr HaChaim): it was difficult to pay attention because of all the physical labor (“avoda kasha“), but there was an additional psychological component (“kotzer ruach“) that contributed to the inability to listen. What was this psychological impediment?
If we survey the commentators, we can identify three distinct emotions that may have inhibited their ability to listen. The Midrash (Pesikta Zutarta) suggests Bnei Yisrael were angry and this anger led them to reject their original belief in the coming redemption. While the Midrash does not state explicitly what caused this anger, perhaps they were upset that they had been promised redemption but nothing subsequently changed.
Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk suggests they couldn’t process the message of hope because they were depressed. This explanation is also alluded to in the commentary of Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi who suggests Bnei Yisrael were not psychologically prepared or receptive to messages of comfort because they were devoid of any hope. Rabbeinu Bechayei goes so far as to suggest that they were fed up with life and had lost the will to live.
A third group of commentators focuses on fear and anxiety, which they say undermined the message of hope. For instance, the Ramban suggests Bnei Yisrael were afraid that Pharaoh or his officers would kill them. The Maharal adds that they were worried about the work (in addition to suffering from the actual work).
Regardless of which one of these approaches is correct, or if there is truth to all three, it is fascinating that they are all rooted in the term “kotzer ruach.” The metaphor used to encapsulate emotional distress – whether anger, depression, or anxiety – is “shortness of breath.”
Without critiquing our ancestors’ reaction in Egypt, perhaps we can learn a message for our own lower-level “avoda kasha” experiences. When we are confronted with difficulties and react with an unhealthy shortness of breath, let us take a step back and take some deep breaths. If we can manage our anger, depression, or anxiety, perhaps we will have enough headspace to listen to the messages of hope and redemption.