Principles from Parsha: Bo

Written by Joshua Z. Rokach on . Posted in Torah

“Come to Pharaoh.”

As of last week’s parsha (Torah portion), G-d had already stricken Egypt with seven plagues. Now, Pharaoh follows the same routine. He promises to heed G-d’s word when undergoing the punishment; but when his suffering ends, he reverts to his stubborn refusal to listen. Here, G-d prepares to strike a further blow: swarms of locusts to blight the land of Egypt and devour the vegetation the previous plague, hail, didn’t destroy.

Now this week’s parsha begins with G-d’s command. “Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order that I could inflict these, my signs, in their midst.” (Shemot 10:1).

This verse lends itself to further analysis. Why does G-d tell Moshe to “come” to Pharaoh, בא, instead of “go” to Pharaoh, לך?

 

We can understand G-d’s message for Moshe to come to Pharaoh only after resolving difficulties in the rest of the verse. Rambannotes that the Torah does not say what Moshe is supposed to do when he arrives at the palace. It does, however, give the reason for Moshe’s trip–– G-d tells Moshe He had hardened the hearts of the oppressors and that He will engage in “shock and awe” for the benefit of the Egyptians and future generations of the Jews.

Rambanconsiders the omission as a literary device. He comments that the Torah does record what Moshe tells Pharaoh. Indeed, Shemot 10:3 states: “Moshe and Aaron came to Pharaoh and told him, ‘So said the Lord, G-d of the Hebrews: How long will your refuse to humble yourself before me; let my people go so they can serve me.’”

Presumably, according to Ramban, Moshe repeats to Pharaoh what G-d had told him in the first verse. Rambansees nothing unusual in this construct. He notes that in discussing the seventh plague, hail, the Torah records what G-d had told Moshe, but not what Moshe told Pharaoh. Logically, Moshe repeated to Pharaoh what G-d had commanded. Therefore, we should view the structure of the verse as nothing more than a matter of literary style. The story of the seventh plague omitted the words of Moshe to Pharaoh; the story of the eighth omits the words of G-d to Moshe.

Rashi, in his commentary on the verse, takes a different view. He adds the words, “and warn him” to the command, “Come to Pharaoh.” In effect, G-d tells Moshe to present himself at the palace and warn the king of the imminence of yet another plague. Immediately afterward, we read the exact words of the warning Moshe will give.

Rashi’s interpretation raises the question: why does G-d have to tell Moshe to warn Pharaoh? More broadly, the commentator Ezor Eliyahu(Lemberg 1889) finds the entire verse difficult.

If, as G-d tells Moshe, He has hardened Pharaoh’s heart, why does G-d have to send Moshe at all? Since the Egyptians have become programmed to resist changing their ways, what purpose does speaking to Pharaoh serve? Separately, the seeming cynicism here––warning Pharaoh and not giving him the ability to change his ways, yet punishing him for his recalcitrance––confounds us as well.

Ezor Eliyahu’s answer to his questions clarifies everything. He points out that repentance involves three sequential elements: thought, word and deed. First, one has to decide to change his ways. Then, one must articulate his decision. Finally, one must take action. Thought involves the brain. Word involves the mouth. Action involves the heart (a person’s will).

Ezor Eliyahufocuses on the word “heart” in the verse–– G-d tells Moshe he had hardened Pharaoh’s heart. We see no mention of his brain and mouth. Nor does the verse state simply that G-d had hardened Pharaoh. Therefore, Ezor Eliyahu interprets G-d as telling Moshe that He had blocked the Egyptians from emancipating the Jews. However, Pharaoh retains free will to change his mind and also to express a willingness to let the Jews go. Ezor Eliyahuconcludes that Moshe has a reason to see Pharaoh. Moshe can get the king at least to repent in thought and word.

This allows us to understand why G-d must tell Moshe to warn Pharaoh and why the Torah uses the word “come” instead of “go.” G-d does not usually give a person the choice to think about changing his ways and the ability to articulate his resolution, but take away his capacity to atone. I cannot think of any similar instance in the Torah.

When G-d sends Moshe to Pharaoh, Moshe would expect that his mission remains as before: to induce Pharaoh to free the Jews. Now that Moshe has a more limited objective, G-d must inform Moshe of the change.

Alternatively, we read earlier (Shemot3:11-4:18) that when G-d first asked Moshe to lead the Jews, he refused. Moshe gave several reasons why he would not go on what he perceived to be a wild goose chase; only if his efforts would accomplish something would he undertake them.

G-d reassures Moshe here that he is not wasting his time even though Pharaoh cannot release the Jews. Moshe can get Pharaoh to come to grips with his sin.

Moshe must “come to Pharaoh.” As in English, the word “come” indicates movement toward something or someone, and “go” means to proceed away. Here, Moshe must explain the subtlety of what G-d wants Pharaoh to do. To accomplish his goal, Moshe must put himself in Pharaoh’s shoes. Similarly, when dealing with a particularly complex situation, we must see the world through the eyes of the other person. Only then can we hope to succeed.

Joshua Zev Rokach is gabbai of the Nusach Sefard Minyan at Young Israel Shomrai Emunah in Kemp Mill and former gabbai of the main minyan at Shomrei Emunah and at Kesher Israel in Georgetown. He has taught a weekly Talmud class at both synagogues and served as an officer and a member of the Board of Directors of both shuls. A retired attorney, Joshua has lived in the Greater Washington area since 1976 and in Kemp Mill since 1986.