M'oray Ha'Aish Parshat Bo: Signs
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Bo(Exodus 10:1-13:16)

Signs

Seven plagues have been endured by the Egyptians, and presumably it is time for the eighth plague. Moshe is instructed to "Come to Pharoh". The language seems strange; we would have expected the command to have been "Go to Pharoh". What follows makes things even less clear: The purpose of this visit is not revealed. Rather than a specific message to the Egyptian monarch, a more general message of God's dominion is transmitted:

God said to Moshe, 'Come to Pharaoh for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, so that I will be able to demonstrate these miraculous signs among them. And so that you will be able to tell your children and grandchildren what I have wrought upon Egypt, and My miraculous signs which I have performed among them, and you will then fully comprehend that I am God.'(Shmot 10:2-3)

God does not tell Moshe the nature or method of the coming plague. Rather, the rationale for the entire "system" of the plagues is revealed. Nonetheless, Moshe understands that another plague is in the offing, and that the purpose of visiting Pharoh is to warn of the impending disaster which will soon befall the Egyptian people. Despite the absence of this warning in God's instructions, Moshe knows what to do.1

Moshe and Aharon came to Pharaoh and they said to him, 'Thus said God, Lord of the Hebrews, 'How long will you refuse to submit to Me? Let My people leave that they may serve Me. For if you refuse to let My people leave, tomorrow I will bring locusts within your borders. (Shmot 10:3-4)

Rashi explains that the strange opening words of the parsha, "come to Pharoh," contain this warning to Pharoh: "Come to Pharoh - and warn him". Rashi thus resolves two problems: the inexplicable use of "come" rather than "go" is a marker for text left inexplicit - the warning that Moshe actually gives Pharoh. This warning, which could not have been a private initiative of Moshe's, was, in Rashi's view, transmitted by God to Moshe, either literally or by inference.

While the warning is absent in God's instructions to Moshe, Rashi assumes it was, in fact, part of what God said to Moshe at that juncture. While the casual reader might assume that Rashi's comments are apologetic, that he has taken the liberty to "correct" an untenable "mistake" in the text, in truth, it may be demonstrated that Rashi's comments are far more systematic. He allows himself the latitude necessary to assume that God transmitted a warning, which was not recorded in the text, based on the pattern discernable among the plagues.

The plague of locusts is not merely one more arbitrary, random occurrence. Each of the Ten Plagues was part and parcel of a series of attacks which posses an inner logic. Each plague should be seen as one specific tactic within a larger strategy. This systematic approach is not new to those of us familiar with the Passover Haggadah. In a Rabbinicic tradition popularized in the Haggadah,2 Rabbi Yehuda divides the ten plagues into three groups, consisting respectively of three, three and four plagues, or perhaps three, three, three and one (the final plague may be a category unto itself):

1. Blood
2. Frogs
3. Lice

4. Wild Beasts
5. Pestilence
6. Boils

7. Hail
8. Locusts
9. Darkness

10. Death of Firstborn

Using this analytic device and dividing the first nine plagues into groups of three, we are able to discern certain patterns or characteristics of the system as a whole.

First, we will note similarities between the first, second and third plague of each respective group. This method forces us to recognize that the "strange" phrase 'come to Pharoh' is not unique to the eighth plague. As our system dictates, this same phrase introduces the second plague in each of the sub-sets (the plague of frogs, second in the order of plagues and second of the first set, as well as pestilence, the fifth in the order of plagues, second in the second set). Interestingly, the first plague of each set (blood, #1; wild beasts, #4; hail, #7) is introduced by the words 'go to Pharoh," precisely as we would expect in the case of all of the plagues. What is the difference between these two turns of phrase? Reading the text with careful attention to context, it becomes clear that whenever "come" is used, the destination is the palace. Whenever "go" is used, the destination is the Nile.3

For the Egyptians generally, and Pharoh in particular, the Nile represented power. The Nile was the life force of Egypt.

'Son of man, confront Pharoh, King of Egypt, and prophesy regarding him, and all of Egypt. Speak, and say: Thus said the L-rd GOD: behold, I am above you, Pharaoh King of Egypt, the great dragon that lies in the midst of his rivers, that has said: My river is mine, and I have made it for myself. (Yechezkel 29:2-3)

The Nile was considered a physical representation of the power of Pharoh, a power fueled by delusions of grandeur and steeped in pagan rituals and beliefs. It is therefore of particular interest that the first plague of each "triplet" was announced at the Nile, at the epicenter of this contrived, self-absorbed world, headquarters of Egypt's cultic activity. In each such instance, God instructs Moshe to "go" - without Him, as it were. Even though God is Omnipresent, filling all of His creation, and there can be no place devoid of His presence, the text "leaves God out of the frame" in the scenes that unfold in the place of pagan worship.4 There, Moshe and Aharon are sent alone.5 Notwithstanding God's assurance when Moshe was hesitant to accept his role as savior ("I will be with you"), God's Presence is hidden in places of pagan ritual observance.

As we have seen, the second plague in each group of three is characterized by the phrase "come to Pharoh". Here, the meaning may be more accurately expressed as "come with me to Pharoh". In this case, the implication is that God will accompany Moshe. The destination is the palace, and we are to understand that God is manifest at these meetings.

Regarding the third plague of each set, there is no warning: Pharoh is no longer involved.6

Thus we see that Rabbi Yehuda's system of breaking the plagues into groups of three is more than a convenient mnemonic device to help us remember the plagues in their proper order. The similarities and differences between the plagues take on new significance when the pattern is discerned. However, this system goes even further, affording deeper insight into the nature of the plagues themselves, and the entire process of leaving Egypt.

The first plague of each set (blood, wild beasts and hail) may be seen as an invasion of Egyptian territory. Most notably, in the first plague the Nile itself was struck; the image of the Egyptian life-force bleeding was certainly not lost on the pagan Egyptians. These three plagues were an annoyance; the Egyptians were made to feel uncomfortable in a general sense, but were more of a public than a private nuisance as compared to the third plague in each triplet. The third plague of each set (lice, boils, blinding darkness) came without warning, neither at the banks of the Nile nor in the palace. They simply arrived. These third plagues were a punishment for ignoring the first two in each triplet, hence no warning and no chance to reverse or avoid the punishment was offered.7 These three plagues were personal afflictions, visited upon each and every Egyptian.

Rav Shimshon ben Raphael Hirsch8 explains that the first plague in each triplet was designed to make the Egyptians feel like strangers in their own land, upending the most basic governing principles that ordered their world. The second plague in each triplet was designed to counter the feeling of superiority that lies at the core of being a slave-owner. These plagues were most closely involved with possessions (the frogs infested the Egyptians' homes and spoiled their bread, the pestilence killed their herds, and the locusts wiped out their crops). The third plague of each group was essentially different: There were lessons to be learned from the first two plagues in each set - moral lessons, social values, philosophical tenets. The third plague in each set was a punishment for having neglected to heed the lessons of the two preceding plagues, and therefore each of these plagues contains an element of physical torture.

When Moshe and Aharon were sent to perform the first in each group of plagues, we understand why they were "sent". Regarding the third plague in each group, no warning was forthcoming. But is there something objectively different about the nature of the second plague in each group, where God invites Moshe to join him, "come to Pharoh"? What was the purpose of such an invitation? Was there something about these plagues that made it appropriate for them to be initiated at the place? Moreover, as the plagues progress, why is Moshe allowed to continue to come to the palace and torment the monarch? The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh points out that Pharoh and the palace were surely well protected; the fact that Moshe walked in unmolested is part of what intimidated Pharoh. Moshe did not seek permission; he entered unannounced. Pharoh's bodyguards quivered, his guard dogs whimpered, and this only added to Pharoh's humiliation.9

This abrupt treatment of Pharoh is not echoed by all commentaries. Rashi, for one, was of the opinion that Pharoh should be treated with respect.10 Rabbi Soloveitchik followed this line of reasoning and took it a few steps further. He explained that there was a schism running through the personality of Pharoh. While he was certainly an evil despot, he was also something else: a person, a human being, a father. Even Pharoh was created in God's image:

"Bo el Paroh" (come to Pharoh) is different from the wording used in the Torah in Sedra Va'era when G-d sent Moshe to confront Pharoh for the first plague of blood at the Nile River. There, we find the word lech (go)... The words bo or lech are characteristic of the message... Moshe was told to approach Pharoh as the emperor and also to approach "another" Pharoh: the private person, the individual. When he approached Pharoh as the king [lech el Paroh], he met him at the Nile, the symbol of power in Egypt. "Address yourself to the power-oriented Pharoh at the source of power, the Nile. Stop him; block him. Tell him there are forces stronger (than he). Place yourself strongly in front of him and protest!" [Elsewhere], we find the word bo used: "Go into the king in [his home] ... whe[re] he is an ordinary man, a person, a father. Tell him how wrong it is to throw a child into the water. Tell him about Avraham, about morality. Perhaps he will respond." There is a spark of good even in the most wicked. We use the word bo when we ask someone to come closer.11 (Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik)

There are times that require confrontation, challenge, even battle. There are times that require a different approach, a person-to-person approach, an appeal to the other's sense of decency. The plan regarding Pharoh was a dual plan: He was challenged publicly, his beloved Nile turned to blood, and he was approached privately, when he could let his guard down, when his subjects were not watching, when he might be persuaded to do the right thing.

Judaism believes that every mortal king's rule is a gift from God; hence, the blessing one recites when seeing a king: "Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, who has given of His glory to flesh and blood." 12 In his palace, away from the corrupt, delusional pagan cult of the Nile, Pharoh was treated with respect, treated as a king. God, as it were, accompanied Moshe to the palace, and together they attempted to connect with the tzelem Elokim hiding inside Pharoh the man. Moshe reached out to a man who may have been to him as a father or brother. During his early years, had Moshe spoken to this man about morals, beliefs, aspirations? Had they discussed Moshe's emerging sense of identity, his spiritual awakening? Now, Moshe spoke with him again, hoping to strike a chord buried deep within. Instead, Moshe found a man who had deaf ears and a hardened heart. His pleas went unheeded. Pharoh was offered the opportunity to rise above, to respond with the greatness and grandeur befitting all children of God, especially a king.

Sadly, Pharoh did not respond to this type of plea any more than he did to intimidation or to fear. Striking the Nile made no impression on him; when the curtain was drawn back and he was revealed to all as a man, not a god or a wizard, he did not succumb. Words spoken to his very humanity, in the palace, in his home where his children laughed and played, in the presence of his Creator and true source of his dominion, did not sway him. Consequently, he lost not only his slaves, but his kingdom. The stage for the tenth, most tragic plague, was set by Pharoh's own intransigence, and he would lose everything.

 

NOTES

1. The Ktav V'kabalah (Shmot 10:1) explains that the torah does not record the entire conversation, but God did say more to Moshe that what is recorded.

2. The earliest source for this teaching is found in the Sifri Parshat Ki Tavo section 5.

3. See Baal Haturim, Shmot 10:1.

4. See comments of Daat Zkeinim M'baalei Hatosfot, Shmot 8:16.

5. In the first and fourth plagues, the text specifically refers to the Nile. In the case of the eighth plague, this context is inferred: In the fourth plague (8:16), the text reads, "God said to Moshe, 'Get up early in the morning, and confront Pharoh when he goes out to the water." Getting up early was necessary, for that was the time that Pharoh went to the Nile. In the seventh plague the word Nile is missing, "9:13 God told Moshe to get up early in the morning and confront Pharaoh," but Moshe is told to get up early, presumably again to go to the Nile. See comments of the Ramban on Shmot 8:15.

6. See comments of Rashbam Shmot 7:26.

7. Many commentaries make this observation. See Chizkuni Shmot 8:15, Commentary of the Baali Hatosfot 7:25, Commentary of the Rosh 6:3, Rabbenu Bachya 10:1.

8. Commentary of Rav Shimshon ben Raphael Hirsch on Shmot 7:15.

9. Ohr Hachaim, Shmot 9:1.

10. See Rashi Shmot 6:13.

11. From a public lecture delivered in January, 1975.

 

12. See Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim, Section 224, based on Talmud Bavli Brachot 58a.

 

Published: January 24, 2009

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