In his (beautiful!) song, “Gaia”, James Taylor sings about spiritual quest and spiritual longing:
“Pray for the forest pray for the tree, pray for the fish in the deep blue sea.
Pray for yourself and for God’s sake, say one for me, poor wretched unbeliever.”
I don’t think Mr. Taylor was looking at this week’s Torah portion when he wrote those lines but, he might as well have been. In the Torah portion Pharaoh, emotionally depleted at the end of the tenth plague, and deep in grief over the death of his son, says to Moses:
“Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the Eternal as you said! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!” (Exodus 12:31-32).
At the website for Reform Judaism, in the weekly commentary on the Torah portion, my colleague, Rabbi Beth Kalisch, notes that there are several traditional reasons that Pharaoh might have thrown out this last minute request to Moses. For Rashi, the 11th century French commentator, Pharaoh seeks God’s blessing for reasons of cynical pragmatism – since Pharaoh is also a first born son, he wants to be spared from the slaughter of the tenth plague. Nachmanides, 13th century Spain, sees Pharaoh as slightly more open, asking for blessing for him and his entire people. In the M’chilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Pharaoh, realizes that he is spiritually disconnected from God, as Moses relates to God, the God of the Jewish people, and seeks to bridge the chasm and return to God. In other words, it’s that concept of t’shuvah, turning and returning, familiar to us from the High Holy Days, our idea of repentance.
Please click and read all of Rabbi Kalisch’s drash (interpretation); it’s thoughtful and beautifully written. I would add another notion to her presentation, one other reason why the Pharaoh snuck in a quick request for a blessing: fear. He was afraid of Moses’ God that could not only defeat him but all of his deities as well!
Two comments about that: First is that, from my perspective, fear is not a productive relationship to have with God. What can we say for ourselves if we pray to God only because we’re afraid of might happen if we don’t?!
My other reaction to the Pharaoh for asking for a blessing is that he was afraid that there might be a god out there that he realized he didn’t know that was pretty powerful – so he’d better ask for a blessing from that god whether he believed in it or not. Pharaoh was, as were all Egyptians and much of the world at that time, a polytheist. He believed in a plethora of gods, of divine influence – influences that might, at a given moment, even be competing with one another. So why not add one more and ask for a blessing? What Pharaoh didn’t understand, and Judaism’s great gift to humanity, was (with apologies to George Lucas) that there is only one Force in the universe and it is, in the Star Wars verbiage, in everything. Even more, within Judaism, it is everything. One does not beg for blessings from such a Force, and this is a difference from Lucas-ism, one does whatever one can to be “with” the Force. It’s our responsibility to realize that the Force is already with us and to understand the blessings, and the responsibilities, that come with that awareness.
So…May you be with the Force!
(And, if you want to explore this even more, and you’re in and around Santa Monica, come to Beth Shir Shalom’s Shabbat experience on January 22nd, “The Force Awakens…Every Day!”)