This Dvar Torah was given by Stephanie Berkowitz on 1/11/2019
There’s a lot in this this week’s parasha, Bo. It contains the final 3 plagues, the first seder and instructions for celebrating Pesach in the future (including many passages debated in the haggadah), and even the commandment to wear t’fillin. But, I’m not going to cover any of that because I got hung up on the very first sentence.
“Then the Lord said to Moses, “בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה .” Every major translation–JPS, King James, New International, even the Greek Septuagint translates this as “Go to Pharaoh.” But “Go” in Hebrew is “Lech” and “Bo” means “come.” Literally,the line means “come to Pharaoh.” It seems illogical. We know that Moshe is in the wilderness and we assume that, if he is in conversation with God, he is in God’s presence–God is with him. Hence, we translate the sentence, “Go (from here) to Pharoah (over there in Egypt)!”
But, we also believe no word in the Torah is extra, misplaced, or without deep significance. The Torah has already used the command “Lech, Go!” many times, such as when God commanded Abram “Lech Lechah!” So, we can presume, at least for the sake of this d’var Torah, that the word Bo has both specific intent and deeper meaning. Luckily, I’m not the first to get caught up in this question.
A Hasidic teaching of Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk suggests that using the word “Bo, come,” simply means that God is not, or at least not entirely, in the wilderness with Moshe. Sure, God is everywhere, but the shechinah–the essence of God’s presence, is in Egypt. ‘Come to Pharaoh” is an invitation, much like the Boi Kallah verse of l’cha dodi is an invitation to the Shabbath Bride. It is as if God tells Moses, “Know that My Presence extends even into Egypt, this place of pain and suffering, where seemingly My Presence is absent.” In other words, God never leaves the slaves, those who need God most. God is there in our darkest times and in the narrowest places.
Similarly, we could assume that God is asking Moshe to “come” because God is already with Pharaoh. On the precipice of the last three horrific plagues brought by God upon the Egyptians, God has not abandoned Pharaoh or the Egyptians. It is still possible for Pharaoh to repent and do the right thing until the last moment. God is waiting. But, even if he doesn’t, God will be there. The idea elicits a midrash about next week’s parasha. When the angels want to join in the song at the sea, God stops them saying, “How dare you sing while my creatures are drowning?” Even while sending plagues, God cares deeply about the Egyptians too.
Joseph ben Isaac, the 12th century scholar Bekhor Shor, sees a different meaning. “The verse,” he writes, “should be read, “‘Come with me to Pharaoh.’” By using the word Bo, God is saying, “the stakes are very high but don’t be afraid, we’ll go together to face Pharaoh. Come, let’s go”. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik reminds us that God remains with Jewish people from here on, appearing as a pillar of cloud and of fire throughout their journey to the promised land. According to Soloveitchik, God is saying,“Begin the process of redemption. “I am right next to you, we will be redeemed together.”
Another way to try and discover the meaning of the word Bo is to see where else in the Torah it appears. God tells Noah: “Bo el haTeva”; ‘Come into the Ark’. Rabbi Lori Shapiro points out that like the flood, the plagues are a kind of undoing of creation toward a rebirth, a new beginning. The Zohar suggests the parallel speaks to the immersive nature of the command. God is asking Moshe for a real “Come to Pharaoh” moment, if you will. Commanding Moshe to immerse himself into Pharoah’s psyche, the very soul of Egypt. I won’t go into the Zohar’s fantastical vision of that innermost chamber, replete with dragons and sea monsters, but share Jewish mystical scholar Daniel Matt’s interpretation of it, that God is inviting Moshe to come to the “nexus of the demonic and the divine.” A place where all of God’s creation-good and evil-vie for dominance and thus keep one another in balance. Pharaoh too is created in God’s image.
If this is the case, suggests Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, maybe God is seeking assistance. He writes that, “God’s call for Moses to approach Pharaoh reflects a more widely resounding call from the Divine to humanity at large, saying, in effect, ‘Come help me resolve this’ – or even, ‘come help me out of it.’”
Imagine, if you will, the following scenario (based loosely on my lived experience earlier this week). You are cleaning up from a meal, maybe a breakfast meeting at work. You walk into the kitchen, arms full of leftover food. You don’t have a free hand to open the fridge and the small counter is already full so you also can’t put the food down. Inexplicably, the toaster oven, though empty, is running on the highest setting, glowing red and so hot you can feel it from across the room. There is also a small puddle on the floor, the water cooler must be leaking. The situation is complex and potentially dangerous, but not exactly an emergency. You need help, but it’s not simple to explain what kind and you don’t want to create a panic. What do you do? You call out to your coworker down the hall, “Come here please!”
Perhaps this is what God is saying to Moshe, or as Rabbi Steinberg suggests, to all of humanity–”Come here please!” I’ve gotten into an impossible situation. I need your partnership. We need to work together. For this, you were created. Remember, a covenant, by definition, requires active participation by two partners.
Pharaoh also needs the help of the Israelites. Without slaves, servants, he cannot build his kingdom. That is why he is loathe to let them go, or as a close reading of the Text will show you, to send them away to serve another. The difference, says Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, “is: who is commanding, and why? Pharaoh is the archetype of self-centered, destructive authority. God’s voice, as embodied in Torah, also speaks to us in the voice of authority; but the intended goal is to awaken in us the forces of good, of conscience.”
We remain invited to enter the covenant and to partner to God. Rather than succumb to tyranny, whether it be in external forces embodied here by Pharaoh, or the tyranny within, the slavery to a selfish, “me first” attitude, we are invited to partner with God and with the Godly forces within ourselves and each other, a moral authority that is there in the darkest times and narrowest places, that sees good in all people, that recognizes that one’s own redemption is bound up in the redemption of others, that asks for help and seeks meaningful relationships–true, covenantal partnership. May we all find ways to accept the invitation.