There are two times in the year where I feel like this: the end of August and the beginning of January. You know the feeling - I’m going to read every single word assigned, I’m going to punch my migraines in the face and have perfect attendance, I’m going to keep my desk perfectly organized all semester. I’m recharged, I’m energized, I’m ready to tackle everything that lays ahead this semester. And somehow, every semester, that optimism completely overrides my skepticism.
In Va’era, the Israelites’ skepticism is not to be reckoned with. God says to Moses: “I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham Isaac and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession…” (Exodus 6:8). When Moses relays the message to the Israelites, why don’t they listen to him? The text, in Exodus 6:9, tells us it was because “their spirits [were] crushed by cruel bondage.” Rashi understands this to mean the Israelites simply took no consolation in what Moses said. His grandson, Rashbam, argues similarly, saying the Israelites would not listen to Moses even though in Exodus 4:31, it stated that "the people were convinced.” At that point, they had expected to get some rest from their hard labor, but now the work was harder than ever. Aside from being a particularly kvetchy, stiff-necked bunch, you can’t really blame the Israelites here. Being on the receiving end of empty promises is certainly frustrating.
Moses kept relaying the promise of shiny new freedom in a distant promised land of milk and honey while the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. All the Israelites wanted from Moses - and God for that matter - was for them to put their metaphoric money where their anthropomorphic mouths were.
Proverbs passive aggressively teaches us to walk the walk and talk the talk vis a vis the ways of the ant: “Study its ways and learn, Lazybones! Without leaders, officers, or rulers, it lays up its stores during the summer, gathers in its food at harvest. How long will you lie there, lazybones? When will you wake from your sleep? A bit more sleep, a bit more slumber, a bit more hugging yourself in bed, and poverty will come calling upon you.” (Proverbs 6:6-11, translation from Alan Morinis’ Every Day Holy Day).
As this semester gets under way, maintain your ant like enthusiasm. Don’t be like the Israelites and let your optimism for this semester get crushed; try not to think of the semester as the cruel bondage of graduate school. You are Moses: Lead your semester where you want. Accomplish the goals that you set out to accomplish. After all, if I am not for myself, who will be for me?
This d'var torah was delivered at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles on 1/12/2015.