Parashat Bo: A Drama of Cosmic Proportions (Exodus 10:1-11:1)

Parashat Bo: A Drama of Cosmic Proportions (Exodus 10:1-11:1)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

In recent months, I have listened late into the night to television commentators describing the incidence and aftermath of natural disasters across the globe. In California where I live, howling winds, unprecedented fires, and floods have been followed by mudslides because the burned-out earth cannot hold the water resulting from prayed-for rain. All these disasters have resulted in loss of life. I have spent many early morning hours contemplating the devastation that nature can predictably – or unpredictably – wreak as a result of the warming temperatures caused by climate change. Is this nature’s revenge, all too reminiscent of biblical plagues, for human inattention? Biblically, we humans are supposed to be stewards of the earth, to take care of it.

In Parshat Bo, the biblical Torah portion (Exodus 10:1-11:10) describes how the Divine hand invokes nature’s retribution for the Pharaoh’s refusal to release the Hebrews from bondage. In this passage, some of the plagues have already been enacted, and the consequences for Egypt have been daunting. Those to come, each one more severe than the other, have already been foretold to the Pharaoh through the human agency of Moses and his brother, Aaron. Still, Pharaoh will not bend.

But now, as the Bible portrays, God will actually harden Pharaoh’s heart so that the severity of the punishment will be increased. Why? We contemporaries cannot help wondering if this is merely an ancient show of power (sometimes compared to God’s actions in the Book of Job), so that people will turn to God instead of the pagan deities of Egypt, foremost among them Pharaoh himself. As God clearly tells Moses, “I have hardened his [Pharaoh’s]heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons (which Jews have done ever since at Passover) how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them – in order that you may know that I am the Lord”(Exodus 10:1-2).

However, it is important to understand that the visitation of the next four plagues represent far more than a contest of power between the Eternal God of the Hebrews and the supreme power of the Pharaoh. What is remarkable is that the Pharaoh cannot bring himself to yield to God through these horrific experiences, even though he has been forewarned that even worse consequences are on their way. “[H]e shows disdain, anxiety, shrewdness, and even confesses to error…..[but only] when his own son is dead does  he give in, defeated both as a Pharaoh and a father,” writes Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut (The Torah, a Modern Commentary, 419).

For Plaut, the Pharaoh remains “an intelligible human being, acting as one would expect a man of his tradition and position to act. Later Jewish tradition depicted him as unusually evil, but this position does not conform with the biblical tale itself, which recounts the release of Israel as a drama of cosmic proportions occurring at the same time in the framework of expectable human behavior.”

In our contemporary society, many of us react to unpleasant realities in the same unthinking way, instead of adjusting our behavior to accommodate a new framework of knowledge.  Fortunately, at least part of the world seems to be coming to its senses, and, even as citizens were sandbagging their coastal or vulnerable homes in California, a climate control resolution (not yet a solution) was agreed upon by many countries. Still, there are those – many of them otherwise intelligent human beings — who will not yield to the possibility of human responsibility in aggravating, if not creating, a potential natural disaster. The position of the U.S. government at the moment is unclear.

In the mystical tradition of absorbing the Torah portions and applying their lessons to our own behavior – to applying them to our deepest selves, as Rabbi Mordecai Finley teaches — we can realize that each of us has an inner Pharaoh, with unconscious motivations that are part of being human beings, whether or not we hold the power that Pharaoh does. At least we hold power over ourselves, our behavior, and our decisions. Yet even as educated and normally compassionate human beings in a Western context, we may find it difficult to adjust to new knowledge, to necessary but unfamiliar ways of conducting our lives. In order to do so, we have to allow ourselves to feel. We cannot afford to let our hearts harden.

As I mentioned in my D’var Torah last week, I particularly like Rabbi J.B. Sacks’ translation of the Hebrew word usually translated “harden” in Parshat Bo. The root of the word, however, is k-v-d, which can also be translated as “weighted,” he wrote in a D’var Torah (“Weighting the Heart, “AJRCA,  2013).) God weighted the callous Pharaoh’s heart, made him heavy-hearted, so that he could feel the ultimate punishment, so that he would feel the loss of his son as a human being and not just as a Pharaoh. “It is not from experience but from our inability to experience what is given to our mind that certainty of the realness of God is derived,’ elaborated the great Rabbi A.J. Heschel. “…Our certainty is the result of wonder and radical amazement, of awe before the mystery and meaning of the totality of life beyond our rational discerning (quoted by Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah, A Modern Commentary, 399).” Perhaps it was to make that point for all time that God sent ten plagues upon the Egyptians.

Equally appealing to me is an alternate understanding of the Hebrew word, “Bo,” the title word of this parasha. God addresses Moses with this simple, directive word, giving us an important clue as to the the intention of the parasha. In Hebrew, “Bo” can mean either “Come” or “Go.” In the JPS translation I own, it is rendered as “Go.” But the command to Moses is not the same as “Lech l’cha”, “Go forth,” the command given to his ancestor, Abraham. Later in the parasha, the Pharaoh’s imperative to Moses and Aaron and their followers is “L’chu,” meaning “GO!” in the plural. So, in my opinion, the “Bo” that opens the parasha is best translated as “Come!” It suggests a compassionate God extending a hand to Moses, a connector between God and mankind.  “Come with me! You are not alone. I will be at your side in facing this challenge.” Even though Moses was apparently 80 years old (not nearly as old as Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who continues in the role of U.S. Supreme Court justice) and well experienced in the world at the time he confronted the Pharaoh, he was initially reluctant to undertake the task. It’s nice to have a helping hand at any age.

As this 21st century progresses, may God hold out his hand to all of us, young and old alike, helping us to face each day with courage – and surmounting together the challenges of the future.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.