Shabbat Bo: Come to The Hard Place

Bo el Par’oh, Moshe is commanded at the beginning of our parashah: “come to Pharaoh”. Many have asked: why “come”, when the right verb should be “go”? To consider this we first should look at a different, but possibly related, question.

This parashat hashavua describes the escalating tensions between Pharaoh, King of Egypt, and the Israelites Moshe and Aharon, demanding that he let the People of Israel go. Seas of ink have been spilled in the effort to understand why G*d, the omnipotent King of the Universe, is described as “hardening the heart” of Pharaoh. 

There are many mysteries in the Torah. It is sometimes instructive to examine our response to the mysteries that exercise us the most. Why do some of the aspects of Torah upset us more than others?

We are commanded against sex with inappropriate partners, yes, but so much more strongly commanded against cheating in our business deals, or on our taxes. Yet no one expects an executive order against cheating in business or in taxes in the next few days, and the issue of which adults, quite possibly as a sign of their love, are engaging in consensual sex, is once again – alas for us all and our democracy – a weapon of political demagoguery.

There are many more examples of such lopsided religious urgency. Rather than listing them and considering them, let us consider why we shy away from some hard things, and quite possibly over-emphasize others.

According to the great medieval teacher Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known as Rambam), the decision to do good or evil always rests with us. At the beginning of our path, we are free to choose, and we find equal opportunities to do good or evil. But as soon as we make the first choice, our subsequent choices are not so evenly balanced. The more we persist in justifying our first choice by continuing in such choices, the less we are able to make a radically different choice.

G*d did not force Pharaoh to do evil, writes Rambam; the more Pharaoh chose evil, the more irresistible the next evil choice became. G*d has built this response, as it were, into our makeup. The more we sin, the more those sins block our way out of the evil we have chosen.

Is there a correlation between those places where we are more blocked ourselves, and the sins that we react to more urgently in others? Is there a link between our energy and our avoidance of the hardest place to stand?

Instead of taking refuge in the easy stand of “what kind of manipulative G*d hardens Pharaoh’s heart” perhaps we might ask ourselves where our own hardness of heart exists. The parashah encourages us: come, look within, seek that hard place in yourself. Never mind ancient stories you don’t understand anyway; put down that righteous indignation toward another, look within, and explore what other feelings might well up to lead you to a more true place in yourself.

Resistance requires all the honesty and openness and love we can manage; never mind Pharaoh’s heart, see to your own.

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