First a little Judaism 101 for those who may not know: The Jewish people read a portion of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) every Saturday, the same portion in every Jewish community all over the world. We do this in the order these portions arrive in the text of the Torah. It takes us a year to read through from Genesis to Deuteronomy.
Last week’s Torah portion is called “Bo“, which is the first significant word of that portion. “Bo” means “come”. The whole first phrase of the portion is Bo el Paroh, בא אל פרעה, which is often translated “Go to Pharaoh” instead of “Come to Pharaoh”. Honestly, “Go to Pharaoh” makes more sense! Why. then, would the text say “Come to Pharaoh”?
“Come” is a command of beckoning. Who is beckoning? Certainly not Pharaoh! Plus, Pharaoh’s not even doing the talking! So, it must be God! Now the question is why; why would God beckon Moses to come to Pharaoh rather then to command him to go to Pharaoh? The answer could only be that God is there, with Pharaoh! For those who are students of this story, you might know that God has anything but a congenial relationship with Pharaoh in this part of the Torah. In fact, Torah portion Bo chronicles the last three of the Ten Plagues. God and Pharaoh are adversaries. God is proving not only that God can best all the Egyptian gods but also can manipulate Pharaoh at will, hardening the Pharaoh’s heart to Moses’ pleas to let the Jewish people go free. With all this in mind, our need to answer our questions is even more intense: why would God beckon Moses to come to Pharaoh and why is God with Pharaoh?!
Why is God with Pharaoh? Because, in the end, God is with everyone, even those we might dismiss as the embodiment of evil. In the end, God is as much Pharaoh as God is Moses. In the end, we must see the image of God (tzelem Elohim, צלם אלהים) in everyone, in everything. After all, the Ten Plagues themselves are manifestations of God and they are certainly evil if you are an innocent Egyptian suffering their effects. God is the process of negotiation between Moses and Pharaoh. God is the Nile and the plankton that died in that water and gave it its rusty, bloody, color. God is the frogs, the flies, the disease, the locusts. God is the death of the first born. And…God is the empowerment of an enslaved people to see the slim possibility of freedom and run toward it through the sea, beckoned by the Voice-of-the-Universe. God is the complexity of their freedom in a foreboding wilderness that could consume them as much as it could be the path to their future.
When God beckons Moses to come to Pharaoh, Moses is coming face-to-face with the inscrutability of Life – how much potential there is for good and evil in everyone and everything. The difference between Moses and Pharaoh was that at the same moment in time that Moses was beginning to understand the mystery of God/Life/All, seeing himself as a small but significant part of Something-much-Larger, Pharaoh was retreating from It. As Pharaoh’s heart became more and more petrified (in both senses of the word), his horizon became more and more narrow. He was desperately trying to aggrandize himself within a very small world rather than seeing himself as part of Everything. Eventually, he was defeated, not by an external punishing God, but rather by the same God of which he was a part that beckoned Moses and Pharaoh perceived an outside enemy.
In our day, too, we are faced with leaders whose horizons are self-limited, who’ve created an artificial universe in which they see themselves as pharaohs. The only way to countermand them is to maintain our humble understanding that they are no bigger than we are. That humility, as it was for Moses, is empowering. When leaders’ own misperceptions of the wholeness of the world, of the Universe, of Life Itself cause them to narrow their vision, we must keep ours wide, even when we feel beckoned toward what seems at first glance to be an overwhelming confrontation with evil. It isn’t evil. It’s Life – in all of its intricacy, simplicity, incomprehensibility and comprehensibility. We have as much power and influence in that Life as those who claim they have it all.