Judaism is about revolutionary change. It is about mending the world according to the rule of God, making it a just, compassionate and holy place. But it is sometimes hard for us to set aside our mundane concerns for such a grand and inspiring vision. In this week’s parashah, God promises to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt to a magnificent future in the Promised Land. But when Moses relays the news, the Jewish people are deaf to his words.
The Torah gives us a rich insight into the psychological condition which prevents them from hearing their leader’s prophecy. Rashi suggests that they were incapable of listening to his soothing speech because they were almost breathless from the stress and exhaustion that comes with slavery and persecution.
This image of a people immersed in its own suffering is expanded upon by the Ramban. In contrast to the midrashim which blame the Jewish people for immersing themselves so deeply in idolatry that they had no wish to leave Egypt, the Ramban explains that the people were not lacking in their faith; they simply did not have the emotional strength to receive Moses’s message. They barely had the will to live, so they could not begin to absorb a magnificent vision of redemption.
Religious leaders face the challenge of motivating people both in the detail of day-to-day religious life and a greater Jewish vision of bringing the world closer to God and the highest ethics of justice and compassion. The Netziv in his commentary on our verse explains that this is why God gave the Jewish people so many commandments. By performing mitzvot, we stay in touch with God, maintaining our ability to stay tuned, receive the message and be active participants in its fulfilment.