Bo: The Hour Passes By

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

What a week we’ve had: lots of bad news about the economy, and for the
first time in many years, an American governor has been impeached and
removed from office. It’s amazing to me that former Gov. Blagojevich
assumed a confrontational stance with the state legislature right till
the very end, when almost anybody who follows the news knew that he’d
be expelled from office. At any point before a few days ago, the
former governor of Illinois could have apologized and resigned with
dignity, thus preserving some chance of reentering public life, in
some form or another, in the future.

Of course, egocentrism which denies incipient reality is hardly a
modern phenomenon. In our haftarah this week, the prophet Yirmiyahu,
or Jeremiah, announces a prophecy of destruction against the Pharaoh
of his day, predicting that Egypt would be defeated by competing
empires and humbled for its arrogance. The Pharaoh of the haftarah,
like the Pharaoh in Exodus who appears in this week’s Torah portion,
Bo, is portrayed as a stubborn and prideful man:

” There they called Pharaoh king of Egypt:
‘ Braggart who let the hour go by.’ ” (Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah 26:17)

This verse causes the commentators some consternation, and there are
various interpretations of the Hebrew. Hirsch, for example, renders
the verse as “Pharoah is in the noisy turmoil, he has allowed the
appointed time to pass by,” and posits that the reference was to a
battle with the Babylonians in which Pharaoh’s army showed up too late
for its strategy to work and was thus soundly defeated.

Perhaps a simpler explanation is that Pharaoh, like everybody else,
has many chances in his life to do t’shuvah [repentance/ returning],
but rather than turn from his wicked ways, he pursues his course till
the bitter end, and meets his fate (according to our text) at the
hands of the Babylonian king and his army. The Pharaoh of our
haftarah- like the earlier Pharaoh in Moshe’s day- faced opportunities
to change, to grow, to admit his mistakes, to choose a different path,
to retreat from destructive pursuits, but he let those moments pass
by, until it was too late to avert the consequences of his impunity.

It’s not only kings- or governors- who must learn that the humble path
of t’shuvah can bring reward in this world, if not the next world as
well. A willingness to admit our mistakes, to give up the false
appearance of perfection, is a sign of great inner strength. Yet too
often we wait too long, letting the hour go by, letting the chance at
reconciliation fade, too preoccupied with the demands of ego to
nurture the growth of the soul.

I might even rephrase our verse above: it is the way of braggart
Pharaoh to let the hour go by, to leave unachieved what the simplest
word of modest and generous love might accomplish. Instead, Pharaoh
would rather be defeated that be humbled. Seen this way, Pharaoh is
not a person, as such, but a part of the human personality: we each, I
think, have within us a that hardness of heart which would rather face
armies than confess our sins and failures.

Pharaoh let the hour go by, but we don’t have to. We have the choice
to embrace this moment, this hour, as the one in which we turn back to
our best and truest selves.

Shabbat Shalom,


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