Bo 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

The dramatic contest of wills between God and Pharoah is coming to a climax: the plagues upon Egypt become steadily more punitive, culminating with the death of the first born. Before the final plague, Moshe and Aaron are given instructions by God to make a sacrifice, and to place the blood on the doorposts of the Israelite houses. Further instructions are given to eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs; this becomes the source of our Passover traditions. The firstborn of the Egyptians are struck dead, and this is the final blow to Pharaoh, who sends the entire Israelite people out in the middle of the night. Commandments concerning Passover and the sanctification of the firstborn are given as a remembrance of the Exodus.

“He [Pharoah] called for Moshe and Aaron in the night and said: ‘Up and depart from among my people, both you and the Israelites with you! Go and worship God as you have spoken! Take also your flocks and your cattle, as you said, and go- and bless me too! “
(Exodus 12:31-32)

The death of the first born is the final, most terrible plague that God brings upon the recalcitrant, stubborn Egyptian monarch and his people. After the previous afflictions upon Egypt, Pharoah had offered partial freedom or small concessions to Moshe, but now, finally, even the deified king Pharoah must admit defeat. He surrenders almost unconditionally, allowing Moshe to take all the Israelites and all of their property and leave behind forever the bonds of slavery.

That Pharoah should finally concede to Moshe, as the agent of God, is not surprising; we knew that was going to happen from the very beginning of the slavery narrative. What we might not have expected was Pharoah’s request for a blessing from the man who has humbled and frightened him, the man he had previously scorned and ignored. It’s true that Pharoah had already conceded Moshe’s ability to mitigate particular plagues; for example, he asks Moshe to plead with God to remove the frogs (8:4-7). Still, one might have expected Pharoah, even in the moment of his defeat, to have sent Moshe and the Israelites out as fast as possible, simply to get rid of them- why does this tremendously proud man, revered as a human god, ask for a blessing? What does he think Moshe can do for him at this point?

There is no consensus among the commentators, either traditional or contemporary, as to what exactly this verse means. Rashi, basing himself on an earlier midrash, thinks that Pharoah is asking Moshe and Aaron to intercede and pray to God so that Pharoah, as a firstborn, will not die. This seems like a request for immediate action- i.e., pray for me right now, so that I won’t die like all the other firstborn.

Other commentators, such as Ibn Ezra, , think that Pharoah is asking Moshe for prayers and blessings when he and the Israelites make their sacrifices in the wilderness, as Moshe had spoken of several times before. (For example, 8:22-25) This interpretation probably takes into account the “flocks and cattle” mentioned in the same verse; since Pharoah knows the Israelites will sacrifice these animals to their God, he asks for a prayer at that time. Ramban seems to agree with this line of interpretation, only adding that the blessing on a king includes his kingdom. He also quotes a midrash from the same sources as Rashi that has a slightly different twist on it: please pray that all the retributions will end, that I will no longer be punished on your account [now that you are leaving.]

The 16th century commentator Chaim ben Attar*, known as the Or HaChaim [“Light of Life”], says that Pharoah’s request for a blessing- as opposed to simply a reprieve from the plagues- meant that he wanted something positive, a “cure,” as it were, not just the removal of the problem. Perhaps the idea here is that Pharoah wanted Egypt to be somehow changed for the positive after their terrible experience.

Rabbi Gunther Plaut, editor of the Torah commentary used in almost all contemporary Reform congregations, illuminates not only the practical meaning but the religious and literary significance of this verse:

    Pharoah now acknowledges that God has dominion over him. The first meeting of a Pharoah with Jacob, upon his arrival in Egypt, [cf. Gen. 47] brought words of blessing, and so does the last- with Moses, upon this departure from Egypt.

Whatever Pharoah is asking Moshe to do for him- and it’s not quite clear- the remarkable thing is that the man who hardened his heart and ignored the suffering of his slaves is now acknowledging (even if only for a moment) that he is not, in fact, an invincible god-king as he presents himself previously. Yaakov’s blessing of the earlier Pharoah seemed to be the friendly meeting of equals; the earlier Pharoah seemed to be more humble, more open, more down-to-earth. The later Pharoah’s asking for a blessing seems to be an act of desperation and fear, illustrating the tragedy of arrogance. The Pharoah who stands cowering before Moshe missed so many opportunities- opportunities to act generously, to change his mind, to soften his heart, to learn from others, to acknowledge spiritual truths. He didn’t, and now must beg for help.

I see Pharoah is a tragic figure, and not merely a villain, because one can almost sense the fear in his voice as he asks his former adversary for help and salvation as his world crumbles around him. He must know, even if he wouldn’t admit it, that this disaster is his own fault; as Plaut points out, asking for a blessing means that he finally understands who is the real Sovereign. Of course, another cruel irony in the story is that his hard-earned humility proves to be fleeting; once the Israelites are gone, and the present punishments removed, his arrogance reasserts itself and he decides to chase after them. (Chapter 14)

The tragedy of Pharoah is not so much that he is a great man brought down by that special kind of over-reaching arrogance that the Greeks called hubris, but that for all of his trappings of kingship and deity, he is just an ordinary person, with ordinary human stubborness, pride, and selfishness. Consider his final change of heart after sending the Israelites out; how many times have people resolved to change their behavior in the midst of crisis, only to revert to old patterns once the immediate dangers have passed? Pharoah is the alcoholic lying in a hospital bed after crashing the car, vowing never to drink again, or the abusive husband who pleads with his wife to come back to him, because this time he’s really changed. Pharoah almost grasped the truth: that transformation of the self for the better requires effort all the time, not only desperate prayers in times of crisis. He almost grasped the truth, but apparently he wasn’t willing to face the personal consequences of holding on to this crucial insight.

Consider also all the other aspects of Pharoah’s personality that seem all to common when viewed as extreme examples of everyday tendencies: How often do we only ask for help when it’s too late? How many times have we all come to realise the truth in somebody else’s words only after we’ve stubbornly rejected them over and over? How often has each of us waited until crisis strikes before approaching God? How many of us have let our egos and self-centeredness get in the way of our generosity and compassion?

Last week I presented the idea that the story of Moshe, a shepherd with a speech problem, can be understood as the story of every human being who is challenged by God to become an instrument of Divine service, despite our frailties and limitations. Pharoah is Moshe’s opposite- instead of answering the call of the Divine, he resists it at all costs. If Moshe is the exemplar of relationship with God, Pharoah is the exemplar of spiritual blindness and immaturity. The tragedy is that he had opportunity after opportunity to grow and change, but could not or would not overcome his own worst character traits. The cartoon figure Pogo’s words were never more true than in the case of Pharoah: “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Chaim ben Attar: born in 1696, died 1743 (Morocco). He is called the “Or HaChaim,” after his somewhat kabbalistically oriented Torah commentary of that name, included in many editions of Mikraot Gedolot.

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