Moshe spoke [these words] to the B'nei Yisrael, but they would not listen to Moshe because of kotzer ruach-distress and avodah kasha-hard labor. [6:9]
Simply put, they could not hear the message. Their kotzer ruach/avodah kasha [heretofore known as KR/AK] prevents them from being effective listeners. What is KR/AK? Rashi and Ramban define:
Rashi - If someone is in a distressed state he is short of breath and he cannot draw long breaths.
Ramban – not because they did not believe in Hashem and Moshe, they did not pay attention to his words like one whose soul is short because of his extreme toil and does not want to live for another moment in his pain.
Hashem then commands Moshe to focus on Paroh [6:11]: Command him to let Bnei Yisrael go. Moshe balks, offering apparently impeccable logic in his rebuttal:
Moshe spoke before Ad-noy, saying, "Behold the B'nei Yisrael have not listened to me, how then will Paroh listen to me--- I whose lips are covered. [i.e. a speech impediment]
First, we note that the second piece [about the speech impediment] seems extraneous. Beyond that, Moshe’s logic appears airtight: If Bnei Yisrael won’t listen, then surely Paroh will reject what I have to say. Indeed Rashi comments:
This is one of the ten a fortiori [kal-v’chomer] inferences in the Torah.
Stop! Probe Moshe’s comparison a bit deeper and try to discover a major crack in Moshe’s logic – one that deeply bothers most of our commentaries here.
Consider: Aren’t the audiences so different? Bnei Yisrael suffer from kotzer ruach/avodah kasha syndrome, a shortness of spirit and difficult labor - which in turn creates an inability to think straight. Paroh, who is in total control [and is probably not overworked], is absent that condition. Is he not [ironically] better suited to hear Moshe’s message?
Da’as Zekeinim quoting Ri MiLisbon rejects the premise: shortness of spirit is a motivator to accept redemptive words. The shorter the spirit, the more receptive one ought to be to accept a message of hope! For the Ri, the text reads that Bnei Yisrael did not listen to Moshe even though they had KR/AK. Most implicitly reject this approach. A classic Stephen Covey word-illustration, based on Koheles and Abe Lincoln, may explain why.
[Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.]
What are doing?” you ask.- “Can’t you see?” comes the exhausted reply. “I am cutting down this tree.”
“You look exhausted. How long have you been at it?” - “Over five hours now,” he returns, “and I am beat! This is hard work.”
“Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes, and while you’re sitting down, sharpen that saw?” you inquire with concern. “I’m sure that it would go easier.” - “I don’t have time for that,” the man says.
“I’m too busy sawing down this tree.”
Shortness of spirit is not about expedience; it is an illogical state - a place where one’s emotional, physical and mental resources are simply spent. One who suffers from KR/AK can not integrate what he needs to hear. Thus Rashi comments on our verse
But they would not listen to Moshe. – [Meaning:] they did not accept [his] words of comfort.
Our question restored; we present a few approaches:
1. Rabbeinu Tam, R. Ovadia MiBartenura: Moshe misunderstood the source of Bnei Yisrael’s rejection - he attributed their response to his speech impediment, not their KR/AK; under these false premises, he correctly reasoned: If my underwhelming oratory cannot penetrate Bnei Yisrael, who are naturally inclined to accept my redemptive message, then I have no chance to influence a Paroh who has every reason to want to reject me.
2. Chasam Sofer: Difficult labor means idolatry. Paroh who deifies himself suffers from KR/AK even more than Bnei Yisrael.
3a. Sfas Emes /Ohr HaChaim: In spite of Bnei Yisrael’s KR/AK, they have rooted faith. At his core, Paroh is not a believer. The challenge of convincing a cynical, heretical Paroh [of message he does not want to hear] is still far greater than influencing a short – spirited Bnei Yisrael.
3b. Ibn Ezra: Bnei Yisroel are subjects and belong to Moshe's nation. Paroh is a king [who doesn't readily take orders] of a different nationality. The challenge of convincing an arrogant, foreigner is still far greater than influencing a short – spirited Bnei Yisrael.
4. Sfas Emes: If the leader of the nation does not have the backing of its people, no matter what the reason, he surely cannot convince an adversary. Bnei Yisrael’s rejection of Moshe undermines his standing with Paroh.
A fifth solution, a Ralbag-based offering, radically differs from these. Ralbag upends the question with a surprising reframe. Until now we have been assuming, [Rashi-like, but with the implicit backing of all the commentaries], that KR/AK is a Bnei Yisrael thing. Ralbag argues that the kotzer ruach was Moshe’s. With a bit of license, the logic runs as follows: Moshe had difficulty convincing Bnei Yisrael because his spirit was dampened – especially after Bnei Yisrael’s increased workload – a direct corollary of Moshe’s first attempt. In his second presentation to Bnei Yisrael, Moshe is now without the requisite confidence.
Moshe’s kal v’chomer is now pristine. His words, an exercise in self-castigation. In effect, Moshe is saying
Hashem, I delivered your message of hope and inspiration to Bnei Yisrael – who ostensibly should have bought it. They however were able to pierce my veil of self doubt – created by my previous failure; If they saw my doubt, then what chance do I stand with a Paroh?
Leadership requires a sense of peace and belief in the mission – and one’s self. Where we doubt ourselves, we will certainly be unable to impact others. Further, to learn and grow from that failure is a critical aspect of greatness.
Immediately after Moshe’s pronouncement, the Torah relates a cryptic verse – one that most commentaries grapple with:
Ad-noy [then] spoke to Moshe and Aharon, commanding them to B'nei Yisrael and Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to bring out the B'nei Yisrael from the land of Egypt.
We are confused here. Is this a new command? What was the command? Does Hashem really need to command [Moshe to command] Bnei Yisrael to leave Mitzrayim?
With our notion, it all comes together: Hashem is commanding them; in other words Hashemis telling Moshe [and Aharon] regarding their mission to Paroh and B’nei Yisrael: You can do it! Believe in yourself and the rest will follow.
From hesitant, halting leader to a Moshe who takes on the Korachs, Amaleks and Parohs of the world – Moshe’s remarkable transformation begins with a sense of personal belief. Once Moshe can redeem himself, he can liberate the Klal Yisrael.
1. Cf. Kli Yakar, Ohr Hachaim, Chizkuni, Da’as Zekeinim, Rashbam among others.
2. Koheles, 10:10 speaks of the one whose iron is blunt and does not sharpen the edge. A Famous Lincoln quote goes something like this: If I had eight hours to cut down a tree, I'd spend the first four hours sharpening my saw.
3. Many go with the misunderstanding approach [cf. Kli Yakar, Chizkuni, Da’as Zekeinim in 1st approach, Ramban [v’yitachein ..] Chizkuni teaches that the following verse [6:13] vayitzaveim el Bnei Yisrael .. was precisely to inform Moshe that their rejection of Moshe’s words was not reflective of a shortcoming in the messenger.
4. Avodah kasha = avodah zarah
5. Ralbag is a bit ambiguous, hence our guarded terminology. He says that Moshe had kotzer ruach from being isolated – he thus did not properly formulate the message to Bnei Yisrae; with regard to avodah kasha, his comments are ambiguous – he speaks about Paroh’s increasing the workload – but it is unclear if that is why Bnei Yisrael did not listen or why Moshe may have lost confidence.
6. A classic Rav Hutner letter  illustrates this idea: The wisest of all men [King Shlomo] said [Mishlei 24:16], "The tzaddik will fall seven times and will rise." The unlearned think that this means, "Even though a tzaddik falls seven times, he will rise." The wise know well that the meaning is: "Because a tzaddik falls seven times, he will rise."