Facing Pharaoh -- Then & Now

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 1/13/2005

This Torah portion shows how Moses comes to face Pharaoh. It invites us to face this question:

How can we face the Pharaohs in our own lives?

Maybe we are most conscious of the Pharaohs that bring plagues of climate catastrophe ("hail") and undrinkable water ("blood") on the earth, send modern chariots to bloody war, kill children, torture prisoners.

Or the Pharaohs at our workplace — cutting wages and benefits, outsourcing jobs, harassing secretarie

Or the Pharaohs in our own religious organizations — sexually abusing children, harassing congregants, scorning gay people, expelling lesbian ministers, cutting off discussion of war and injustice becuase they are not "religious" issues and might be "divisive."

Or the Pharaohs within ourselves, the habits and addictions that have us by the throat, enslaving us. Killing us.

When God sends Moses to face Pharaoh (Exod 10: 1), the Torah text says, "Bo el Pharaoh." Most English translations say, "Go to Pharaoh." But "Bo" means "come," not "go."

"Come to Pharaoh!"

How can God be saying "Come!" unless God is already there? — Already within Pharaoh, saying, "Come toward Me!"

And God continues: "Hikhbad'ti libo." That is usually translated, "I have made his [Pharaoh's] heart heavy, hard.") But the Hebrew root KVD can mean heavy, or glorious, or honorable, or radiant.

(Perhaps the English sense of "gravity" — a force that reaches far beyond its source, radiating through the world — catches some elements of "KVD." When a leader is said to possess "gravitas," it means s/he is a "heavy dude," worthy of honor, radiating forth her/ his own glory to faraway places.)

So the phrase can be read as: "I, God, have put my radiance in his, Pharaoh's, heart."

In other words: "Come to Me — the Me who lives hidden inside Pharaoh. Don't be afraid of Pharaoh, and don't be swallowed up by rage against Pharaoh. For what looks like HIS radiance, HIS glory, is really MY radiance, MY glory.

"Everything he seems to be is simply a refraction of Me. For a moment the glory of the Unity of the universe SEEMS to be embodied in him; but it really goes far beyond him.

"As you, Moses, are already beginning to see, that radiance will soon be fully visible not in Pharaoh but in his overthrow, in HISTORY-TURNED-UPSIDE-DOWN — or rather, TURNED-RIGHT-SIDE-UP."

For us today, this can be a constant, powerful, and crucial lesson. What seems to be an irresistible dominant power in the world — whether it is a political/economic boss, ruler, corporation, or a personal addiction, obsession, is only a garment of God, and whenever I can see thru the garment into the Divine glory at its heart, I can begin to free myself.

"Come to Pharaoh, where I am!"

Come with both courage and compassion.

Together they make up what today we call nonviolent resistance.

Torah Portions: