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.
In this week’s parashah, we read of how we went out of Egypt.
That’s the command: “in every generation, to see ourselves as those who go out of Egypt.” (Talmud, Pesakhim 116b) Not to imagine as if, but to experience the going out ourselves, in an immediate way. How is that possible? I can’t feel myself enslaved as we were in Egypt; I can’t feel what it’s like to leave home at a moment’s notice and without any possessions.
Isn’t it much more comfortable to regard the stories of our religious tradition from a certain distance? Easier to condemn when necessary, to condescend, to dismiss as primitive and under-developed. But the ancients had an ability to sense reality just as acutely as we moderns. Perhaps theirs was a capacity felt in a different register, but it is a perspective that we might benefit from considering. It requires immersing ourselves in a different kind of mind-set, and heart-set.
The story goes that the Israelites left Egypt in the middle of a terrifying night during which every first born child and animal in Egypt died. This is hard to take at face value for a true story, but this is where our tradition offers us another way to understand. The story before us is brutal: slavery by degrees, from which we are extricated with wrenching, overwhelming, all-encompassing suddenness. Innocents die in the process – many Israelites and Egyptians whose names we do not know, many more Egyptians with the onset of the plagues even before the death of the first born, and more still to come at the Sea of Reeds.
There is much suffering in a time of great change, and there is destruction ringing the edges of the most beautiful freedom story. Many are dead, with no clear reason or meaning to their tragic deaths. Refugees may be alive, but their futures are bereft. Those whose action or passive compliance allow the suffering to occur also find themselves suffering, for no direct reason that is discernible to them. We drift in darkness and confusion, and turn upon each other with fear rather than compassion.
If we can see ourselves in Egypt, then we can begin to see ourselves leaving Egypt – that is, not each of us personally, but all of us communally. We can begin to discern the beginnings of movement, the promise of upheaval. “Who is wise?” the Talmud records a Rabbi saying, “the one who can see what is being born.” (Pirke Avot 2.9)
Reading this parashat hashavua (weekly parashah, Torah reading) in the same week as Martin Luther King Jr day, after a year in which some of those whose deaths would normally go unrecorded came to prominence – Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, and, only today, Jerame Reid, brings a special resonance. Their tragic deaths seem meaningless. Their families and communities are refugees in their own nation, and we suffer the echoes of the far-reaching, inchoate destruction without any clear sense of connection.
Jewish tradition insists that we will not leave Egypt until we all go out together – and we as individuals will not all get there, but we as the human race must. When we know this in our hearts we will have understood the meaning of the mitzvah: b’khol dor vador hayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim, “in every age and age, we are required to see ourselves as going out of Egypt.” In every age so far, we have not done it. Until we can see it, we cannot do it; until we are here together, we will never get there.
Have you seen the television commercial for heart health that begins with a person very matter-of-factly receiving a note that says “your heart attack is coming tomorrow.” As we know, says the voice-over, such events happen without any warning. If you could know when a life-threatening event would happen, you could prepare for it, dodge it – even, as in our Jewish legends, try to avoid the Angel of Death by changing your name, or heading to the town of Luz (where no one ever died).
This week our reading, the second segment of the parashah according to our Triennial Cycle count, begins with a terrifying declaration: come midnight, all the first born of Egypt shall die. Terrifying, yes, but perhaps some people would like to have such certainty. After all, there’s even a “Death Clock” on the internet. Very appealing, perhaps, to fill in the information it requests – but would you believe the answer?
Our ancestors were aware that they were part of a never ending cycle of life and death; that they, like all that lived and moved, would one day stop living, stop moving. Curiously, ancient Hebrews did not seem to worry so much about life after death – at least, not to the extent that our Torah speaks of it. When our ancestors died, according to our Scriptures, they either had a “good death”, which meant being surrounded by loved ones who cared for and buried the body afterward, or a “bad death”, which meant that one died in agony – of war, disease, famine, and other horrible causes – and that there was no sure burial for the body. A “good death” was indicated by the idiom “gathered to one’s ancestors”, and a “bad death” was expressed by the term “going down to She’ol”. (A helpful site for more information, including what the ancient Hebrews DID believe about life after death, is in the Jewish Encyclopdia: Sheol.)
The fear of death, however, was as powerful for them as it is for us. When would death come? how? when will we be deprived of those we love? In most cases, there is no certainty. Even in our first verse of this week’s reading, there is one tiny letter that hints at the uncertain territory between life and death. In Exodus 11.4 it is literally written: כחצת הלילה – “some time around midnight”. The single letter khaf indicates “sort of”, “almost”, or “about”.
That’s as close as we get in Judaism to the ultimate truth of life and death. That letter khaf stands in between us and the complete, transcendent truth. We cannot know the time of our death, or any of the other things we want to know the most, and the khaf is there to remind us of that.
Don’t let the khaf get you down, though. Consider this tiny message from the Hebrew letter: the letter khaf has the same name as the word “hand”, and a khaf has the numerical values of two tens, that it, two yuds, which designate a Name of G-d. The little khaf that stands between you and death reminds you that you are in the hands of G-d. And no matter where you go, what you fear, or what happens to you when, you can never fall out of the hands of G-d.