Kotzer Ruach Syndrome
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
A couple of weeks ago I spent a day in Key West, Florida. There was a beautiful Government building that was erected many decades ago. It was the southernmost government building in the United States of America. The tour guide pointed out some of the unusual features of this building. First of all it had a tin roof. The purpose of this tin roof was to capture the huge amounts of snow that would fall on it so it would eventually melt into drinking water for the use of the people who worked inside the building. At that time there was no running water in Key West. The tour guide also pointed out that the building was equipped with eleven huge hearth fireplaces, capable of keeping the building warm through the fiercest winters.
This imposing brick building with its shiny tin roof sits at the southernmost corner of the United States as a testimony for all generations to the difficulty man has in adapting to new environments and situations. It has never snowed in Key West Florida and it never will. Those fireplaces have never had to be lit to keep warm. Those who designed and built that building were stuck in a climate and world that didn’t apply. They had a hard time with change.
Getting stuck is an age-old phenomenon. When Moshe delivered his message of hope for the Jewish people he was met with mind boggling reluctance. Instead of blessing Moshe they cursed him. They believed Moshe, yet they couldn’t listen to him. The Torah makes a bold psychological diagnosis in explaining the Jewish reluctance to accepting freedom. “They couldn’t listen to Moshe – m’kotzer ruach – from a shortness of spirit.”
Kotzer ruach must be a very powerful condition to cause a people to refuse freedom, refuse nationhood, refuse chosenness, refuse a land they could call their own, and refuse a future for their children.
What is this “kotzer ruach” syndrome? It occurs when the comfort of familiarity overpowers all dreams for the future. When one resists change, even when change will create an improved and wonderful lifestyle. When one makes peace with a bad situation because one just doesn’t have the strength to change. It’s a sad condition but it is inherent in humanity. It is a syndrome that was labeled by G-d Himself. It is also a condition that can and must be overcome.
The Zohar teaches that the ruach or spirit referred to in this verse is the ruach found in the second verse of the Torah, “...and the ruach (spirit) of Elokim was hovering above the waters." We were short on G-d’s ruach. We became so entrenched in Egypt that we became disconnected and unexcited about anything spiritual. We didn’t have the ruach to listen to Moshe or to even think about freedom. The less we are connected to Hashem, the more we are short of breath and spirit. The Torah begins with G-d’s ruach and ends with Hashem telling Moshe to pick a successor who is full of ruach.
In a number of places the Talmud talks about a “Ben Olam Haba”. “ Whoever says Ashrei three times a day is a Ben Olam Haba. Whoever says “Yehei Shmey Rabba” with a lot of kavana is a Ben Olam Haba, and so many more. How seriously can we take this? All of life is a struggle and a challenge for getting into Olam Haba. Mitzvos and good deeds, a wholesome, healthy and spiritual lifestyle, all get us to Olam Haba. If we go too far off the track, I’m sorry to say – you’re out. So what does saying Ashrei or answering Kadish have to do with this? Recently, I found myself struggling to find the real meaning of a “Ben Olam Haba.”
To my mind, when the Talmud speaks of “Ben Olam Haba” it is not referring to a destination or a future geographical location. When the Talmud refers to a “Ben Olam Haba” it refers to a type of person, in the same way the Talmud speaks of a Ben Torah (a person who has integrated Torah into the fiber of their life) or a Ben chayil (a very strong individual). A Ben Olam Haba is an Olam Haba person; as opposed to an Olam Hazeh person. It refers, to a spiritual human being, a person with ruach, who is focussed on higher concerns. A Ben Olam Hazeh may do mitzvos, give tzedaka and in fact have a portion in the World to Come. But if his or her focus is Olam Hazeh, than he is a Ben Olam Hazeh! By contrast, a Ben Olam Haba eats, sleeps and has a good time but his or her concerns are far above the ground!
The Talmud is teaching us that we have to become Bnei Olam Haba right here in this world and in this life. We have to reach a level of maturity that makes us focus on the big things, on the deep things and on the soul of the Universe.
I recently had the privilege of watching an old rabbi ascend a podium to speak. I asked myself how anybody expected him to have the strength to invigorate the audience. He was hardly awake himself. But as he started to talk Divrei Torah he became thirty years younger right before my eyes. He stood straighter, his voice became more powerful, his mind was sharper, and he was suddenly plugged in! I understood that this man is a “Ben Olam HaBa” -- he gets excited and derives energy from another world.
I pay careful attention to what gets people excited. Some people wake up when they talk about their business, some people wake up when they talk about sports, some people only wake up when they talk about others, and some people wake up when they talk about Torah.
For the Jewish people to survive we need people with ruach. We need bnei olam haba. We need people that are focussed more on where they are going then what they are driving. We need to maintain the ability to think big, to think Eretz Yisroel, to think community and not to get bogged down with the “olam hazeh” stuff.
Life, from beginning to end, is for growing, but we are all in danger of getting stuck. Growing requires excitement, passion and drive, yet we find ourselves coasting, without vision. We develop Kotzer Ruach.
I’d like to share a personal story. In 1994 our family was living in Australia. I decided it was time to make a move. A number of opportunities came my way. One of the most enticing came from a call I received from a student of mine who asked me if I would consider being a candidate for Rabbi of Caesaria. I had visited Caesaria. It is a beautiful coastal town, with exquisite homes and wealthy inhabitants. It had a beautiful Shul and at that time was the residence of the President of Israel. I had the qualifications, the language skills and the connections necessary to get that position. The only problem was that in Caesaria there were no schools for our children; it would have meant commuting to neighboring Ohr Akiva on a daily basis. I remember calling my Rebbe to discuss the matter with him. He asked me how old I was. I told him I was 38. “Isn’t that a bit early to retire?” he asked.
We must never let ourselves get old. We must never get stuck. We must never make peace with a bad situation. We must never become Kotzer ruachniks.
Every day we make a brocha in which we acknowledge Hashem as “Hanosein layaef koach”. “He gives the weary strength”. Every day we are weary; every day G-d gives us new strength. I’d like to recommend an exercise. Let’s stop at this brocha for a full minute and think about what we are saying. Let’s meditate daily on the renewed strength that G-d is willing to give us. Let’s ask ourselves if we are kotzer ruach – or are we full of ruach.
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