We read in Parashat Vaera of Benei Yisrael’s refusal to accept Moshe’s prophecy of redemption, due to “kotzer ru’ach” (“shortness of spirit”) and “avoda kasha” (“hard labor” – 6:9). The plain meaning of the text is that due to the harsh conditions which they suffered, and which were intensified as a result of Moshe’s initial encounter with Pharaoh, the people were exasperated, in despair, and thus unable to trust in Moshe’s promises of redemption.
The Mekhilta (Parashat Bo, Masechta De-pischa, 5) offers a much different – and surprising – interpretation of the term “avoda kasha” (“hard labor”) in this verse, claiming that it refers to the people’s involvement in avoda zara (idol worship). Their idol worship was “hard” in the sense that it was very difficult for them to withdraw from it, entrenched as they were in Egyptian mores. The Mekhilta makes reference in this context to the famous prophecy of Yechezkel (20) in which God recalls Benei Yisrael’s idol worship in Egypt and their refusal to abandon it before the Exodus.
Clearly, the plain meaning of this verse is that Benei Yisrael could not accept Moshe’s prophecies because of their despair wrought by the harsh conditions of enslavement which they endured. How might we explain Chazal’s reference to the people’s idol worship in this context?
Perhaps, Chazal sought to draw a comparison between despair over spiritual failure and other forms of despair. Just as the harsh labor led Benei Yisrael to despair, to lose hope in a future of freedom, joy and dignity, similarly, their cultural assimilation in Egypt made a return to their ancestors’ faith seem impossible. Just as our difficult conditions in life seem permanent and unchanging, causing us hopelessness, our spiritual standing also often appears permanent, and we despair of the possibility of positive change. If so, then Chazal here urge us to avoid this misconception and believe in our ability to grow and improve. Even if we feel “stuck” in place and unable to advance, we must remember that we are all capable of progressing. Just as Benei Yisrael’s despair turned into the jubilation of the Exodus, our seemingly hopeless spiritual condition can improve through consistent and concentrated effort, along with patience and faith in ourselves. Avodat Hashem is “avoda kasha” – hard work, requiring breaking old habits and reversing ingrained tendencies. The story of the process of yetzi’at Mitzrayim teaches us, however, that our own process of spiritual growth is well within our reach, difficult and overwhelming as the prospect of change may at first appear.