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.
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.