"Bo": Facing the Plagues & Pharaohs of Today

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow*

The first three Torah readings from the Book of Exodus challenge us to transform our understanding of oppression and liberation, and apply their archetypal wisdom to our own lives today. I have commented on the first two passages from that perspective; now I want to take up the third..

Meanwhile, on Martin Luther King Day 2009, the day before the Inauguration of President Obama, I was able to go even deeper into the meaning of that tale of liberation through voice and physical presence than I can go by electrons and Email. So I hope you will see and hear a video of the talk I gave at the "Rebirthing King, Rebirthing America" event in Washington. Look at --

If you missed my commentaries on the readings of the last two passages, you can click to URL's I will list at the end of this letter. -- -

When God sends Moses to face the 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!

"Come toward Me."

And God's call to Moshe 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 he is a "heavy dude," worthy of honor, radiating forth 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: what looks like HIS radiance, HIS glory, is really MY radiance, MY glory."

From seeing God hidden within Pharaoh, I can learn both courage and compassion.

Courage as I realize that Pharaoh's seeming power is not his, but just a part of the enormous power of the flow of life, the Unity of universe. If Pharaoh tries to grasp that power as his own, the river and the locusts, the frogs and the first-borns, will overflow his rigid boundaries and sweep away his power. I do not need to fear it.

Compassion as I recall that even within Pharaoh is the Tzelem Elohim, the spark of God, and I can resist the Pharaoh's tyranny while yet remembering the KaVoD -- honor -- due his spark of divinity.

Multiply courage by compassion, and what emerges is nonviolent resistance. I will not obey my enemy, and I will not kill him either. I will persevere on my own life-journey into truth - what Gandhi called satyagraha, "the force of truth."

Twice, Moses and Aaron face Pharaoh saying, "Thus says YHWH. . . " (Exod 10: 3 and 5: 1). In their first encounter, Pharaoh answers, "Who is YHWH?"

Who indeed?

This is the God Who spoke that Name to Moses at the Burning Bush. The Unpronounceable Name -- unpronounceable not because we are forbidden to pronounce it, but because there is no way to "pronounce" it but by simply breathing, "Yyyyhhhhwwwwhhhh." The Name that reaches across all barriers of language: not Hebrew, or Egyptian, or Sumerian, or Latin, or Greek, or Sanskrit, or Arabic, or English -- but present beneath all of them. And present also in the bleating of sheep, the gurgle of fish, the rustle of trees. The most universal of Names. The Breath of Life, Nishmat Kol Chai, Ruach Elohim.

Moses and Aaron might have simply stayed focused on that universal Name. But they added an explanation -- "YHWH, the God of the Ivrim, the Hebrews."

Why -- when they were trying to get an Egyptian king to listen -- entangle an ethnic claim with a universalist assertion?

Perhaps they were entering a word-play with Pharaoh. Perhaps "God of the Ivrim, the Hebrews," meant more than an ethnocentric boast. For Ivrim means literally "those who cross over," nomads, wanderers, what Stalin called "rootless cosmopolites" when he was attacking Jews. It seems to have been used by the settled, responsible peoples of the Middle East as a contemptuous label for people who wouldn't stay put where they belonged. "Wetbacks."

Perhaps Moses and Aaron were warning Pharaoh that the Breath of Life -- which blows where it wishes, cannot be captured and pinned down -- is the God of those who cannot be pinned down to one place, one life-path, one Narrow Space.

Moses insists that the Boundary-crossers must leave in order to celebrate a festival for the Breath of Life.

Often this is read today as an attempt to mislead Pharaoh. But suppose we imagine Moses groping his way toward a broader, stronger form of resistance. Honoring the nonviolent resistance iof the midwives Shifra and Puah, but wanting to go another step.

Perhaps from that perspective, Moses' demand for a three-day festival in the wilderness was an experiment. If they had been allowed to go and then returned, having had time for rest and reflection and celebration instead of being condemned to endless toil, would that "reform" have shaken pyramidal Egypt to its foundations? Did Pharaoh refuse precisely because he knew that introducing the notion of sacred restfulness and holy renewal would shatter its top-down social system?

And if we ask ourselves what it would mean today for Jews -- for anyone!!! - Americans, Palestinians, West Virginians condemned to see their lovely, sacred mountains smashed to burn the coal that scorches the earth and poisons the air -- to take on the task of nonviolent resistance against our generation's Pharaohs, perhaps the festivals can embody that resistance.

When Soviet Jews began dancing for Simchat Torah in the public streets of Moscow, facing what seemed to be a totalitarian regime, that was utterly different from dancing with the Torah in the hidden streets of the ghetto. Their dances began to crack the rigidity of Pharaoh. They became Ivrim -- boundary-crossers. And they called forth allies.

When American Jews celebrated Freedom Seders that honored both the ancient Israelite and the modern Black struggles for freedom and demanded an end to the Vietnam war, and feminist Seders that affirmed new freedom for women within and beyond the boundaries of Jewish life, they cracked ancient rigidities that required both Jews and women to stay "in their place." Blacks, Jews, a veritable "international feminist conspiracy" of women of many cultural origins all crossed their own boundaries to stand together. They all became Ivrim -- boundary-crossers.

And when they celebrated Tu B'Shvat by facing the corporations that were draining the Everglades and destroying ancient redwood forests, they invoked those Kabbalists who knew that the shefa of Divine Abundance needs to be renewed on earth as well as heaven. And they were not Jews alone; they crossed the boundaries between cultures and religions, they called forth allies, they and their allies together became Ivrim.

When Israeli Jews built "Sukkot Shalom" to gather energy to move toward peace with Palestinians, they too were facing the Pharaonic rigidity of governments that were stuck in a narrow place. They too had allies.

In all these ways, we see new explorations in what it might mean for the Jewish people to cross old boundaries by moving to a new place in its history:

Anciently, we hoped to make a decent society on our own, through military conquest of a small land for ourselves. But that vision became indefensible in the face of the Roman legions.

So we drew into our own communities to make them holy, and gave up on repairing the world at large. Again, we stood alone inside the boundaries we hoped would keep us safe. But the Shoah shattered that vision too: in the Modern world, no place to hide, no walls that would protect.

What now? Imagine reclaiming our own festivals as Moses did, facing Pharaohs with that nonviolent challenge. And imagine making allies of other spiritual communities that are ready to become Ivrim ---- the Boundary-crossers ---- in order to face the Pharaohs of today, on behalf of the Breath of Life.

Indeed, to heal that very Breath of Life which is in utter danger now --- the Inbreath/ Outbreath of CO2 and Oxyygen that has lost its balance at the hands of modern Pharaohs who threaten us all with the Plague of global scorching, climate crisis.

What would it mean for us to face the modern Pharaohs of that Plague --- the Pharaohs of Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Auto --- with the force of truth, the Breath of Life renewed in our own nonviolent resistance? ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
* To see my comments on the previous two passages of Exodus, see --

"Renaming God -- to Free the World"
"Who Hardened Pharaoh's Heart?"

And please remember to look and listen to the video of my talk at the "Rebirthing King, Rebirthing America" event in Washington last week. Look at --

Shalom, salaam, peace -- Arthur


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Torah Portions: