Are You Coming or Going?

Parashat Bo begins on a curious note. We usually translate “bo” as “come.” But in Exodus 10:1, “Bo el Par’o” in Exodus 10:1 is usually translated, “Go to Pharaoh.” “Come to Pharaoh” would suggest that God is with the ruler of Egypt, and the next phrase seems to confirm it: because I have hardened his heart. So here we have a layering of paradoxes: a “come” that means “go” and a God who is somehow with Pharaoh, the embodiment of evil.

Most translators say, “Well, that can’t be right!” and change the more common “come” to “go:”

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the heart of his courtiers, in order that I might display these My signs among them; and that you may recount it in the hearing of your sons, and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians, and how I displayed My signs among them – in order that you may know that I am the LORD.” – Exodus 10:1-2, JPS translation

The Zohar offers one solution to the paradox of “go” and “come”.  It reads Exodus 10:1 as a metaphor in which God calls to Moses from Pharaoh’s throne room, summoning him into the cavern of a fearful serpent, the evil heart of Egypt’s soul.

The Kotzker Rebbe offers a different solution to the problem in apparent meaning: he suggests that God is telling Moses: “Don’t be afraid because I will be with you in the throne room! In fact, I’m already there waiting for you!”

The process of Exodus is like the journey from youth to maturity. Sooner or later, those who wish to become truly mature must confront the darkest parts of their personality. “Come,” our yetzer hara [evil inclination] calls to us, and we enter its chamber, filled with dread, because we know it to be powerful. “Enjoy yourself,” it murmurs. If we surrender to it, we give ourselves over to selfishness.  The task of the mature Jew is to take a sober look and see the evil inclination for what it is. This can be terrifying, precisely because the ugly thing is deep within us. As the Kotzker Rebbe reminds us, it is then  we may realize that despite the terrors of that place, God is with us every step of the way.

The good news is the Kotzker Rebbe’s interpretation: we may be down there in the hole with our worst inclinations, but we don’t have to be there alone. God goes with us into those dark places. I find it reassuring to remember that Jews all over the world are with me in this struggle, too, each of us wrestling our own private demons.

All human beings have an inclination to selfishness. Indeed the rabbis assure us that we cannot thrive without a little of that yetzer harah. (Yoma 69b) That is not just human nature, it is the nature of all creation. But our task, as human beings, is to struggle with our selfish inclination and to keep it within the limits prescribed by Torah.

In the opening phrase of this week’s Torah portion, the Kotzker Rebbe reminds us that we have to go into the darkness – but God not send us there alone.

A slightly different version of this d’var Torah appeared in the CCAR Newsletter.

 

Coming or Going? Exodus and Elul

One of the odd things about being a writer is that often you do have to do things out of season, because of a publishing schedule. I just finished writing a d’var Torah on Parashat Bo, a section of the Book of Exodus. However, the materials I reviewed for it made me think it was very appropriate for Elul.

Torah portions gets their names from the first distinctive word of the portion. In this case, “Bo,” which is usually translated “Come,” isn’t translated that way. Here’s the opening verse of the portion:

And the Eternal said unto Moses: ‘Go in unto Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these My signs in the midst of them. – Exodus 10:1

So here most translations say “Go” instead of “Come.” It makes more immediate sense, so that’s what they do. However, if you read Hebrew, or you start looking in the commentaries, it stands out as a very interesting situation indeed.

The Kotzker Rebbe took a very simple approach to the Come/Go question. He said that things were getting scary, and God said “Come” to reassure Moses that God would there with him in the throne room of Pharaoh.

The Zohar, a mystical work, takes almost the opposite tack. It says that really God was calling to Moses from the throne room of Pharaoh, and that the throne room was a dark tunnel in which there lived an evil snake. (I don’t recommend the Zohar at bedtime, unless you like nightmares.) Like all mystical works, the Zohar is full of metaphor and clouded language, but the message in this passage is loud and clear: “Danger, Moses!”

We are in a season of the year when our task is to plumb the depths of our own souls. Sometimes that requires confronting ugly aspects of ourselves: our selfishness, our cowardice, or our defensiveness. It can be like following an ugly snake down into a dark hole, and then, when we are down there with it, wrestling the thing.

The good news is the Kotzker Rebbe’s interpretation: we may be down there in the hole with our worst inclinations, but we don’t have to go there alone. God goes with us into those dark places. I find it reassuring to remember that Jews all over the world are with me in this struggle, too, each of us wrestling our own private demons.

Whatever we wrestle this Elul, may we never forget that we are not alone!