The Hebrew word for “breath” used in the final verse here is ruach, which also means “wind” and “spirit”.
In using this word, the ancient language of the Torah is drawing on the connection between our breath, and our psychological and spiritual state of being. As we all know from experience, our breath shortens and lengthens in relationship with our emotions.
Even though Moses was trying to give the people wonderful news about liberation, freedom and dignity, their own inner state prevented them from hearing this news.
Of course, this is entirely understandable, given the situation. The people were forced by cruel taskmasters to perform back-breaking and humiliating labour, around the clock, hence they had precious few inner resources left and little capacity for receiving Moses's good news.
Their spirits had been crushed by slavery, so much so that they could not even recognise the possibility of liberation when it presented itself. They were, in other words, thoroughly institutionalised.
Fast-forwarding to today, most of us would not immediately recognise ourselves in this description of our enslaved ancestors. However, we do not need to be enslaved in such a literal fashion in order for our freedom, and our wellbeing, to be impinged upon.
Many of us would admit, even if only to ourselves, that we are addicted to various means of adjusting our inner state. Some of us might use sugar or caffeine, others might use social media, or compulsively work or exercise, all in order to elicit short term feelings of control, relief or pleasure.
The Hebrew word for “addicted”, machur, also means “sold”. When we are addicted, we have “sold ourselves” to something, to which we submit our personal power. We enslave ourselves to these insidious taskmasters, which are often socially respectable or even ubiquitous.
May this week's parashah remind us to retain our own inner compass and a healthy independence in managing our state of mind and being; may we be free enough to hear the call of our inner Moses.
Rabbi Silverstein runs Applied Jewish Spirituality