This week’s Torah portion follows upon the first seven plagues visited upon Mitzrayim (biblical Egypt) which, at this point in the narrative of our journey to Peoplehood, has become our mitzrayim (narrow place). We are enslaved to Pharaoh, a power-hungry and arrogant monarch who “knew not Joseph” and has subjegated the Israelites. The opening line not only gives us the name of the parsha, Bo, but also speaks to us of a central theme of the narrative:
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בֹּא אֶל-פַּרְעֹה כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ, וְאֶת-לֵב עֲבָדָיו, לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה, בְּקִרְבּוֹ
Vayomer YHVH el Moshe bo al Par’oh ki ani hichbad’ti et libo, v’et lev avadav, l’ma’an shiti ototai eleh b’kirbo.
And God said unto Moses: Go (Come) to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants, that I might show these, my signs, in their midst.
The translation of the word “hichbad’ti” is most often “hardened.” This is one of 19 times in Exodus in which this word (Hebrew root: כבד), is used to describe the condition of Pharaoh’s heart and one of 9 times that God says that God has created this condition. What are we to learn from this? From a “literal” reading of the text, I have always wondered why God would cause a condition that would further enslave the Israelites and reek further havoc on the inhabitants of Egypt.
What does it mean to have a heart that is hardened, or stiffened, or made heavy, burdensome, unwieldy, onerous? (Hebrew is a rich language with many interpretations of a single lingual root.) Is God taking responsibility for creating the condition of Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness? Or are we being warned of the condition that comes to exists when a person is so full of himself and his glory that his heart becomes hard and heavy, leaving no room for God/sacred presence.
Did God withdraw from Pharaoh’s heart because there was no more room for God to dwell amongst the hubris and abusiveness within Pharaoh’s cold heart? And what about the Israelites who have been so enslaved that they have become devoid of hope and desire for freedom. Is there space for God in those hearts full of fear, anguish, and deep sadness, or have they, too, closed themselves to the flow of sacred energy?
Another possible translation that helps me see this statement as God’s resignation, even heartache, comes from the root shared by the words hichbad’ti (I will harden) and a word we know well ~ kavod (honor). If God is saying, “I will honor Pharaoh’s heart,” this suggests a God that creates but does not meddle in the behavioral choices of humanity, co-creators of the human condition. Thus, God offers signs in our midst to remind us of how we can soften our hardened hearts and create a different reality for ourselves.
And what of the word “Bo?” It means come, not go as it is so often translated. In many other places in this story the word “leich” (go) is used to instruct Moshe to go to Pharaoh, but here, “bo” (come). Our sages have many explanations for this anomaly, among them the sense that at this point the plagues have become so severe and Pharaoh has begun to fear God. Formerly, he was only frightened when a plague struck, but now he becomes frightened as they are announced. Thus God assures Moshe that God will be with him ~ “Come [with Me] to Pharaoh…” (Abarbanel)
Is it possible that these two parts of the same sentence are an enigmatic teaching … at once telling us that God is present with Pharaoh and the Israelites and, in the same moment, that there is no place for God in a hardened heart? This is the beauty of our Living Torah ~ throughout the generations, we are forever searching the words for meaning and finding in the scroll and in our hearts new ways to learn. Through study we renew Torah and revitalize Judaism’s teachings to open and soften and strengthen our hearts.
These musings on Parshat Bo were stirred by the deep nourishing well of my hevre – my sacred ALEPH community which gathered to celebrate Shabbat Va’era, the ordination of 5 new rabbis, 2 new cantors, and 2 new rabbinic pastors, and to learn, worship, and grow together during the annual OHALAH conference. My heart is expanded with gratitude to the Source of Blessing, my teachers and friends. Artwork: Second heart is the work of goldsmith Gretchen Raber; third is the photography of Oneinfocus.org.