This week’s parashah begins with God’s command to Moshe to once again confront Pharaoh, the great ruler of Egypt who has repeatedly refused to agree to Moshe’s plea to let our people go. One of the strange aspects of the parashah begins with the phrase that gives the parashah its name: Bo, “come”. Why “come to Pharaoh” instead of the more logical “Go to Pharaoh”? And then, of course, we have what is considered by many commentators to be the most difficult part of the whole story: God says to Moshe “I have hardened Pharaoh’s heart”.
The Eternal said to Moshe, Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart…(Ex.10.1)
How many plagues does it take to change a Pharaoh’s mind? There have been seven so far, and the language has changed along the way. At the beginning, it was Pharaoh who hardened his heart, refusing to agree; now it is God who hardens the king’s stubborn heart. Have the plagues had the opposite effect of that which was intended?
Only if you believe God is, or has ever been, a puppetmaster. Try a different theological possibility. “The Eternal” is not a personality; it is the infinite time and space in which our lives occur. We choose – sometimes feeling pushed and sometimes pushing back – we choose how we will use our small allotment of time and space, moving toward good or toward evil on mighty winds of time and sweeping currents of spatial movement.
If you choose to do good, all the forces of the world will help you.
If you choose to do evil, all the forces of the world will help you.
– a Talmudic teaching
The effects of Pharoah’s own choices over time took his choice out of his hands, given enough time. Consider the addict who is sure s/he can stop anytime – until the day when s/he discovers that s/he no longer has freedom of choice in the matter.
Now we can understand the true meaning of bo, “come” to Pharaoh. If we are to truly confront that which has shifted within us away from free choice, and overcome our own hardnesses of heart, we have to realize that there is no outer place to “go”. Rather we have to look inward, to “come” home to ourselves. No hardness of the heart can withstand the perspective of our true place in Eternity. Think of how all things seem different when confronted through the lens of mortality…..
On this Shabbat, take a moment to widen your perspective. What plagues have you become used to, with the passage of time? What choices could you take back, if your heart were to un-harden?