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Parshat Bo 2019
Question: How are Pharaoh in today’s parsha and President Trump similar? Answer: both are willing to sacrifice their country’s best interests by sticking to their toy guns. Trump will close down the government to get his way with his wall and Pharaoh was willing to expose his country to devastating plagues to get his way with the Hebrews. Isn’t that called cutting off your nose to spite your face?
We of course think that Pharaoh got what he deserved in the plagues, with interest, and his obstinate refusal to give in despite the devastation that rained on Egypt would certainly seem to indicate some supernatural force at work that was incapacitated his emergency survival system. What the Torah calls “God hardening his heart.”
On the other hand, what else could Pharaoh do? He was fighting for his divine and political life as the corporeal incarnation of the gods on Egyptian soil, with all that it entailed. Basically, this was a mismatch between a local deity who had to save face before his followers and the real God.
It is interesting to chart the development of this struggle. It started in parshat Shmot, a mere two weeks ago, when Moshe and Aharon came to Pharaoh. They said: Thus said the Lord, God of Israel, Let my people go. Pharaoh’s answer is: Who is this God that I should listen to Him and send out Israel. I don’t know God and I won’t release Israel.
What does Pharaoh mean, he doesn’t know God? Everyone knows God.
Here the problem is in translation. Every nation had its god or gods, which would be called Elohim in Hebrew. So when Yosef told his Pharaoh that God would interpret Pharaoh’s dream, he was talking about Elohim, without being specific, and Pharaoh understood what he understood.
Here, however, Moshe was talking about the ineffable name, what we call Adonai or Hashem, the specific name of the specific God of Israel. This was the God that Pharaoh did not know. This was the God he was going to get to know.
And indeed, we see that from the second plague, frogs, when the suffering becomes too much for Pharaoh he calls for Moshe and Aharon and tells them, beseech God (Hashem) to take away the frogs, or whatever plague was plaguing him.
Interestingly, in last week’s parsha, after the plague of lice which the magicians could not counteract, they say to Pharaoh, “It is the finger of God” – but they use the generic word Elohim, meaning a deity, not the specific name, presumably because they did not want to antagonize their master Pharaoh.
Again, with the hail, Pharaoh says beseech God (Hashem) to stop the hail. And at the beginning of today’s parsha, before the locusts come, Pharaoh’s servants (advisers) say to him, “How long will this be a stumbling block for us? Send out the people and let them serve God (Hashem) their Lord. It’s about time to realize that Egypt is lost.” They are not afraid to mention which God is against them now.
This is a prophetic statement. After locusts and darkness, comes the killing of the firstborn, and in a panic, Pharaoh calls for Moshe and Aharon and tells them to get the hell out of my people, you and the Israelites and go serve God (Hashem). Not YOUR God. God. Total surrender.
But he adds three words (in Hebrew) which translate as: “And bless me too.”
We will try to fathom what he meant but first note the total turnaround since the first parsha. From “I don’t know God (Hashem)” to “and bless me too” – from this same God that he now knows all too well.
The meanings that commentators give to Pharaoh’s three words run the gamut. Maybe it was just an ironic throwaway. “You’re going, so put in a good word for me too,” which doesn’t mean anything. Or it could be that he was truly panicked – which he should have been because he too was a firstborn. Evidently the only Egyptian firstborn in the country not to die that night. So he was really asking for a blessing to keep himself safe.
Another, more gracious interpretation is that he was asking Moshe for a blessing for himself and his people. They all had suffered so much – please, while you’re asking for blessing for yourself, give us a blessing too.
The most extreme interpretation, given in the Mechilta d’Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and cited by Rabbi Beth Kalish, is that “Pharaoh knew that he was lacking in prayer, and God does not forgive someone until he has persuaded his neighbor [to forgive him as well]. In other words, Pharaoh was doing Teshuva. A very generous interpretation, and a very short-lived teshuva when we consider what Pharaoh does after the Israelites march out of Egypt (see next week’s parsha), pursuing them to bring them back.
A lesson we can learn from Pharaoh’s behavior is that we can sometimes blind ourselves to our own best interests. And our own best interests are usually served when we remember who we are and what values and principles represent us. When we allow personal or excessive national pride to override these values, we expose ourselves to the internal dangers that in our past led to the destruction of two Temples and a long period of exile. Let’s hope that we have the ability and the desire to find the path and principles that will keep us safe.