SALT - Motzaei Shabbat, 29 June 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
In loving memory of Ada Bat Avroham, Alice Stone z"l,
beloved mother and grandmother on the occasion of her Yahrzeit, 2 Tammuz
Ellen & Stanley Stone and their children and grandchildren,
Jake & Chaya, Micah & Addie, Zack & Yael, Allie & Isaac,
Ezra & Talia, Shai, Yoni & Cayley, Azi, Eliana & Moshe,
Adina & Emunah, Gabi & Talia
            The Torah in Parashat Chukat tells of Benei Yisrael’s complaints after the kingdom of Edom refused to allow them passage through its territory, forcing Benei Yisrael to take a circuitous route on their way to the Land of Israel.  The people grew impatient, and began complaining about the conditions in the desert – which they were now compelled to continue suffering after having anticipated journeying through Edom directly to the land (21:4-5).  God reacted angrily to the people’s grumblings, sending snakes to bite them (21:6).
            The phrase used by the Torah to describe the people’s impatience is “va-tiktzar nefesh ha-am ba-darekh” (21:4).  Rashi explains this phrase to mean “the nation grew impatient of the journey.”  According to this interpretation, the word “ba-darekh” is the object of “va-tiktzar nefesh ha-am,” the thing about which they were impatient.  One might have thought, as Rashi acknowledges, that “ba-darekh” means simply “along the journey,” such that the verse informs us that it was along the journey – and not necessarily because of the journey – that the people grew weary and impatient.  But Rashi dismisses this interpretation, noting that whenever this expression – “kotzer nefesh” – is used to describe frustration or impatience, we are told the cause.  For example, Rashi cites a verse in the Book of Shoftim (10:16) which tells of God’s decision to help Benei Yisrael because “va-tiktzar nafsho ba-amal Yisrael” – He was “tired,” as it were, of seeing them suffer.  Thus, here in Parashat Chukat, too, the phrase “va-tiktzar nefesh ha-am ba-darekh” must be understood to mean that the people grew impatient because of the long journey, not simply that they grew impatient during the journey.
            As part of his discussion, Rashi elaborates on the precise meaning of “kotzer nefesh,” whose literal translation is, “shortness of soul.”  Rashi writes that this expression refers to “anything that is difficult for a person,” to the point where “his mind is not expansive enough to receive that thing, and he does not have space inside his heart for that distress to reside.”  The term “kotzer ru’ach,” Rashi explains, expresses that the source of the distress “is large and heavy for the person,” so much so that he cannot tolerate it.
            In other words, we all have a certain emotional capacity, the ability to tolerate pain, discomfort, difficulty and anguish, but sometimes we experience “kotzer nefesh,” when our “soul” is too “small” to contain the weight of the distress.  When this happens, we – like Benei Yisrael in the wilderness – lose our composure, our patience and our poise, and begin complaining or expressing anger.
            Rav Chaim Hirschensohn, in his Nimukei Rashi, makes a vitally important clarification about Rashi’s comments, noting that the term “kotzer ru’ach” is purely allegorical, reflecting only our perception of our limited tolerance.  Just as the term “kotzer ru’ach” as applied to the Almighty must be anthropomorphic, likewise, the notion of “kotzer ru’ach” in the case of human beings is not actual, but rather imaginary.  We are, in truth, capable of handling even the greatest challenges and the bitterest forms of adversity.  It is only in our minds that we experience “kotzer ru’ach,” that we feel that our emotional capacity is too small to contain the burden of pain or distress. 
            The expression “kotzer ru’ach” points to the reality that we feel incapable of bearing great hardship.  We should, however, be aspiring to change this reality, to change our mindset and perception, and realize that we are able to handle far more than we think.