We read in the beginning of Parashat Vaera the message God commanded Moshe to deliver to Benei Yisrael after his initial effort to release them from bondage resulted in Pharaoh’s intensifying their labor. Moshe conveyed to the people God’s promises of redemption, but, as the Torah tells, “they did not listen to Moshe, due to [their] shortness of spirit and hard work” (6:9). God then told Moshe to return to Pharaoh and demand that he release Benei Yisrael, and Moshe responded, “But the Israelites did not listen to me, so how will Pharaoh listen to me?!” (6:12). Moshe argued that if his promise of redemption was rejected by his own people, then certainly Pharaoh will reject his demand to release Benei Yisrael.
Many commentators raised the question of why Moshe felt that Benei Yisrael’s rejection of his message to them indicated that Pharaoh would reject Moshe’s message to him. After all, the Torah specifically attributed Benei Yisrael’s dismissal of Moshe’s assurances to their “shortness of spirit and hard work.” Why would Moshe assume on this basis that his demand to Pharaoh would also be dismissed?
A creative reading of this verse is suggested by Rav David Tzvi of Neustadt, in his Chemdat David. He explains that Moshe was not making an a fortiori argument that if he was ignored by Benei Yisrael, then he would certainly be ignored by Pharaoh. Rather, Moshe realized that Benei Yisrael needed to be moved and inspired, if only slightly, in order to be worthy of redemption. He argued that if he was unsuccessful in uplifting Benei Yisrael, in eliciting positive change, then he would not be successful in his mission to secure their release, because Benei Yisrael needed to earn their freedom through heightening their spiritual awareness to at least some extent.
Implicit in this chassidic reading of the verse is the premise that even when we are beset by “shortness of spirit and hard work,” challenged by difficult conditions, whatever they may be, we are nevertheless capable of some sort of positive change. According to Rav David Tzvi of Neustadt, it was clear to Moshe that although Benei Yisrael had a very valid reason for refusing to heed his message, nevertheless, they would not be worthy of redemption without taking a step forward. This is because all people, in any situation, are able to, and expected to, try to be a little better. Certainly, the “shortness of spirit and hard work” that we face, the various trials and tribulations that we confront over the course of life, might require us at times to set modest expectations for ourselves. However, under no circumstances are we ever absolved from striving to advance one step forward, to make at least some slight improvement, and become just a bit better than we are currently.