"Come to Pharaoh," and whom we choose to serve
January 20, 2018
This week's Torah portion is called Bo, for its opening words ויאמר יהו׳׳ה על–משה בא על–פרעא / Vayomer YHVH el-Moshe, "Bo el-Paro" -- "And God said to Moshe, 'Come to Pharaoh.'"
Most translations say "Go to Pharaoh." But the Hebrew is pretty clearly "Come." For me, the difference between "come" and "go" is that the first one connotes "the place where I am." If I say to my son, "Come here, I want to talk to you," I'm asking him to come where I am. If I say "Go over there," I'm telling him to go to the place where I am not. So when Torah says Bo el-Paro, I hear God saying, "Come here to Pharaoh -- to the place where I also Am." (This is not my own insight -- Zohar scholar Danny Matt sees this as an invitation to "come" into God's presence, too.)
We might prefer to imagine that God is not with Paro. Pharaoh is the exemplar of toxic power-over. He regards the children of Israel as subhuman. He describes them with words that connote vermin swarming. He's ordered policies that literally kill all of their male children. And yet with this one simple phrase, Torah reminds us that there is no place devoid of God's presence. Not even the place where Pharaoh is.
The next thing we read in Torah is a bit troubling: כי–אני הכבדתי את–לבו / ki-ani hich'bad'ti et-libo, "For I have hardened his heart." Whoa, hold up: God hardened his heart? Wouldn't it have been easier for God to simply soften Pharaoh's heart so that the children of Israel could be set free without all of this drama?
But if we look back at last week's Torah portion, we'll see a different phrase. Last week, Moshe and Aharon spoke to Pharaoh, and Paraoh hardened his heart and did not listen. Three times we read that Pharaoh hardened his heart and did not listen, before we reach this mention of God hardening his heart. (Many of our commentators observe this, among them Rashi.) I think Torah is teaching us some deep wisdom about the human heart.
The heart flows in the ways to which we habituate ourselves. If we practice gratitude every morning, even on the days when we're not "feeling it," we can train the heart to incline toward gratitude. If we practice compassion toward others, even on the days when we're not "feeling it," we can train the heart to incline toward compassion. And if we practice hardening our hearts -- maybe by telling ourselves that "those people" aren't our problem; they're a different generation, or their skin is different, or they dress differently or pray differently or speak a different language -- then we train our hearts to incline toward hardness. Like Pharaoh's.
Torah says God hardened Pharaoh's heart, but Pharaoh had already hardened it, time and again. I think God just got out of the way and let Pharaoh continue being who he had already shown himself to be. That doesn't mean God isn't with him. We don't get to say that God is only "on our side." But it does mean that Pharaoh's made his choices, and there will be consequences.
That's verse 1.
In verse 2, God continues that the purpose of the signs and wonders -- the ten plagues and our subsequent liberation -- is so that we may teach all the generations to come the story of the Exodus. This is our core story as Jews, and we tell it in our daily liturgy, in the Shabbat kiddush, and in the Passover seder.
And in verse 3, Moshe and Aharon say to Pharaoh, how long are you going to be like this? Let God's people go so that we may serve God. In God's words, שלח עמי ויעבדני / shlach ami v'ya'avduni, "Let My people go that they may serve Me." The root ע/ב/ד means service, both in the sense of the service the priests performed in the Temple of old (and the "services" we attend today) and in the sense of serving God with our hearts and our lives and our being. As we read earlier this morning, "Everyone serves something; give your life to Me."
Everyone serves something. The question is, do we serve Pharaoh -- emblem of commercialism and and overwork, dehumanization and xenophobia, all of which are still perfectly alive and well in our day -- or do we serve something else?
Judaism invites us to choose "something else." Judaism invites us to make the profoundly countercultural choice of spending 25 hours each week disengaged from work, not only physically but also intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.
Judaism invites us to say: there is something more important than all of our making and doing and achieving, and that something is Shabbat rest. Not just "taking a nap," though the Shabbos schluff is a time-honored tradition, but opening our hearts and souls to the weekly rejuvenation that becomes possible when we disconnect from workday consciousness and open ourselves to something beyond ourselves.
Judaism invites us to set aside the worries of the workweek and take a deep breath that goes all the way to our kishkes, all the way to our insides. On the seventh day, Torah teaches, שבת וינפש / shavat va-yinafash -- God rested and was ensouled. (We sing these words in the prayer V'shamru each week.) When God rested from creating, God's-own-self became ensouled in a new way. So do we.
May this Shabbat be a time of real rest and re-ensoul-ment. May we be reminded of the things that are more important than our budgets' bottom lines. And may our lives be lives of service to God -- and to the spark of divinity manifest in every human being with whom we share this earth.
This is the d'var Torah I offered at CBI this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)