Parshat Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16
This week’s Torah Portion opens with God commanding Moses, bo el paraoh.
Most English translations render this decree as, “Go to Pharaoh,” but in Hebrew the imperative bo means “come,” not “go.” How then can God be telling Moses to “come to Pharaoh” unless God is already there, within the Egyptian despot?
An answer may be found in the most well-known linguistic (and ethical) curiosity in this week’s text, wherein we read that God has “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart. Here, too, translations are tricky. The Hebrew root for the word hardened is kvd, yet kvd is suggestive of other meanings as well. For instance, the same root that means hard can also be understood to mean honorable, glorious and radiant.
Thus, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow teaches, the phrase that is most often understood to suggest that God is responsible for hardening Pharaoh’s heart can as readily suggest that, “I, God, have put honor, glory, radiance in his heart.” In other words, “Moses, come to Me — the Me who lives within Pharaoh. Don’t be afraid. What looks like his honor, his glory, his radiance, is really My honor, My glory, My radiance.”
Now, this is a truly fascinating way in which to read the text. After all, so long as we understand that God is responsible for Pharaoh’s hardness of heart, his lack of compassion, his intransigence, we are left to wonder how God could then hold the Egyptian ruler responsible for an obstinacy of Divine origin. This, after all, is a serious ethical problem. But the problem is resolved if we expand our understanding of the Hebrew idioms, which English translators have for so long rendered as “go” rather than “come” and “hard” rather than “honor or glory or radiance.”
Consider that when God commands Moses bo el paraoh, God is, at once, suggesting that Moses go approach Pharaoh and, even more than this, that he come to appreciate that what looks to be Pharaoh’s intimidating presence is really God’s divine essence. Thus, to go to Pharaoh requires that Moses come to a place, that is that he come to an understanding wherein, clearly, all is not as it first appears.
This is true in our own lives as well, is it not? How many times have readers of this column discovered that what we at first imagined to be true of an individual was not the reality? We have an encounter with one who is self-impressed and only later come to understand that he or she is riddled with insecurity. We perceive others to be surly or rude and only later come to see that they are lonely or hurt. We work alongside someone who presents as intimidating or mean, yet in time we come to discover that he or she is, in fact, sensitive and soft-hearted. And the list goes on.
Please understand, this is neither to excuse nor to “soften” Pharaoh, but rather to teach that there is a bit of divinity within each of us and sometimes we may need to “go” out of our way to “come” to appreciate this truth.
Rabbi Aaron Benjamin Bisno is senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.