Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: “Go and tell Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to let the Israelites depart from his land.” But Moses appealed to Adonai, saying: “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!” (Exodus 6:10-12)
Rabbi Samuel Mohilever (1824-1898) was a pioneer of Religious Zionism and a founder of the Hovevei Zion Movement, an important precursor to modern Zionism. His efforts to promote Jewish settlement in Israel (then under the rule of the Ottoman Turks) and reclamation of the land through agriculture, gave him an interesting perspective on these verses from Parshat Va-eira.
“These verses puzzle me.”, he is said to have observed. “Why did Moses argue with God? Why did he not try to find out what Pharaoh’s reaction would be? Actually, I think these verses should be interpreted to mean that Moses said: ‘What will happen if Pharaoh listens to me and agrees to let the Children of Israel go, but the Children of Israel refuse to hear me? Better I should seal my lips and remain speechless!”
This unusual interpretation arose from the Rabbi’s reaction to events with which he was personally familiar. According to him, after Theodore Herzl had won permission to purchase a large tract of land in Israel from the Turks, Herzl appealed to leading Jewish philanthropists and then to the larger Jewish community for the funds to close the purchase. Herzl was enthusiastic and hopeful, and anticipated a similar response from the larger Jewish world. After all, here was an opportunity to begin the restoration of Jews to our ancient homeland. However, the necessary support didn’t immediately materialize. The Ottomans were willing to sell, but the Jewish community wasn’t yet ready. According to Rabbi Mohilever, Herzl was dismayed, but, thankfully, not dissuaded from his prophetic vision. And the Rabbi was left to wonder if Moses shared Herzl’s dismay. After all, our ancestors initially didn’t respond positively to Moses. “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage (mi’kotzer ruach umi’avodah kashah)”. (Ex. 6:9) It would appear that Rabbi Mohilever’s interpretation above reflects the consternation he imagined that Moses and Herzl – and he, himself -- may have shared when it appeared possible that Jews might be less than enthusiastic in their response to the challenging call of Jewish destiny.
The call is as compelling and the challenges are as complex in our own day. This is true in many facets of Jewish life, including the one that ties us most closely to Herzl, to Rabbi Mohilever and to the Zionist visionaries of our own movement – Israel and the ongoing nation-building enterprise of the Jewish people. Through ARZA – the Association of Reform Zionists in America – and through the other activities of the URJ family that encourage serious, substantive and constructive engagement with the modern Jewish state, with our people and with our movement in Israel – we continue working towards realizing both the dream of a Jewish state and the hope that it will become an exemplar, a light to the other nations of the world. Many of us involved in this sacred work have had moments when we felt just like Moses or Herzl. Maybe we, too, wonder like Rabbi Mohilever does in his drash, if it is better to “remain speechless” in the face of disinterest, disengagement or disillusionment.
To the great and enduring benefit of our people, none of these great men – not Moses, Herzl or Rabbi Mohilever – nor the similarly courageous women who stood with them remained quiet. Neither should we. To what they perceived as the kotzer ruach – the diminished spirits or despondency – that afflicted hearts and souls of our people in their day, these heroes and heroines continued to work, to speak out and to turn each success, not matter how small, into an enduring source of tikvah (hope) that sustained and inspired the Jewish people then and now.
The phrase, kotzer ruach, is translated in Modern Hebrew as “impatience”. In our work as Reform Zionists today, I think this is helpful. We are not a people or a movement of “crushed spirit” or “despondence”. We are vital and vibrant; responsive to the challenges of contemporary Jewish life both here and in Israel; and willing to engage in all its complexity. However, we are, sometimes, impatient. When dreams and aspirations, even those noble or sacred, go unrealized, impatience can lead to frustration, followed by disillusionment and disengagement. It is important to keep this in mind. Difficulties and disappointments have accompanied the Zionist enterprise at every stage. Even so, like our predecessors, we will not be dissuaded or “speechless”. Rather, we will be patient but persistent and principled. We will continue to raise our voices, engage our energies and invest our resources in ways that will strengthen and secure the reality of Jewish nationhood, and will someday turn our highest hopes for State of Israel into proud moments for all the Jewish people, now and far into the future.
Rabbi Jack Alan Luxemburg is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Ami of Rockville, MD and Senior Vice-Chairman of ARZA. The thoughts of Rabbi Samuel Mohilever cited above are recalled in Heaven on Your Head by Rabbi Morris Silverman.