Bo: The Hours Go By

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

There they called Pharaoh king of Egypt: “Braggart who let the hour go by.” (Yirmiyahu/ Jeremiah 46:17)

Good afternoon!

This week’s Torah portion is Bo, which concludes the story of the plagues and sets up the actual Exodus from Egypt, including the laws and practices of the Pesach or Passover ceremony. (See here for summary). The haftarah, or prophetic reading, continues the theme of judgements against Egypt, but from a much later time period, when King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon was marching west to expand his empire. The prophet Yirmiyahu saw the Babylonian king as an instrument of Divine vengeance against Egypt, although in the end, the Babylonian invasion was hardly good for the remaining Jewish kingdom of Judah, which suffered conquest and exile.

The verse quoted above is a taunting mockery of the Pharaoh of Jeremiah’s era, but it’s a bit hard to translate. It seems to imply that Pharaoh made a lot of noise, but when the hour of battle against the Babylonians came, he wasn’t able to live up to his boasts (Rashi), or perhaps Pharaoh brought destruction upon his people when the “hour passed by,” according to my reading of the Conservative Etz Hayim Torah commentary.

Either reading works when connecting this verse to our Torah portion this week, and even more, to our own lives and challenges. Pharaoh, as I’ve written many times before, is the archetype of a human being alienated from their spiritual nature: narcissistic rather than generous, avenging rather than forgiving, an ego driven by power-over rather than a soul nourished by service. Pharaoh is every petty dictator or abusive boss or selfish manipulator, or even more precisely, those qualities in every person. He epitomizes what Martin Buber called the instrumental relationship of “I-it,” using people for his own ends rather than seeing others as equals, created by God with their own gifts and purposes. Because his ego is driven by power, rather than love, the challenge that Moshe presents- let my people go to serve God in the wilderness- must be shut down ruthlessly. How can Pharaoh let the people go for their own purposes when the very nature of power is to see people as mere instruments of our own will?

Pharaoh is a villain, to be sure, but he is also a tragic figure. Ten times he had the opportunity to do the right thing, to change course, to see clearly the end result of his chosen course, but he let the hour go by. Of course, we have the famous conundrum that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” but we can understand this as God giving Pharaoh the courage or fortitude to be able to choose the right path out of conscience, not mere fear of the plagues.

That, to me, is the core of the story: the tragedy of letting the hour of choice go by, until destruction or disarray is assured. How many of us have made the mistake of failing to choose when choice was possible, when there was yet a chance for better way at work, at home, with their health or wealth or relationships, but the hour passed by? What Douglas MacArthur said about failure in war is true about life more generally. To wit: that the history of moral and spiritual failure can almost be summed up in two words too late.

Yet for most of us, most of the time, it’s not too late. It’s not too late to seek forgiveness, or grant it; it’s not too late to reorient ourselves to love and justice, it’s not too late to fix what we’ve broken and take courageous stands where we must. For most of us, the hour has not passed by, and great things await those who seize the day and make it holy.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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