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Torah Commentary
Bo (February 4, 2017)

Bettijane Eisenpreis

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the heart of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them — in order that you may know that I am the Lord.”
(Exodus 10:1-2)

Parashat Bo takes its name from the first word of the Lord’s command to Moses, “Go (Hebrew: Bo) to Pharaoh.” That much is clear; what follows is profoundly troubling. God states here, and several times before and after, that He has “hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” If this were simply the story of a wicked king who never really wanted to let the Israelites leave Egypt, then there would be no problem. It would be, in the words of a title by the late Jimmy Breslin, another version of “How The Good Guys Finally Won.”

But it is not just a case of Pharaoh’s changing his mind — or never intending to let them go in the first place. The text makes it clear that it is God who hardens Pharaoh’s heart and prevents him from letting the Israelites go. The story culminates with the dramatic Plague of the Firstborn. God not only destroys the firstborn sons of Pharaoh and his courtiers but also the eldest son of the “slave girl who is behind the millstones, and all the first-born of the cattle.” Why should the slave girl and the cattle suffer? They haven’t done anything to the Israelites. In whatever way one reads this, it is disturbing.

Why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart? The answer, “In order that you may know that I am the Lord,” is a bit surprising. After nine plagues that selectively affect the Egyptians and not the Israelites, it is reasonable to assume that both the Israelites and the Egyptians suspect something supernatural is going on. Living in New York, I have become used to seeing rain in my neighborhood and hearing that it is dry in the Bronx. New York covers a big area. But when it is sleeting on your side of the street and not on the opposite side, you certainly begin to wonder.

It all comes down to public relations — a concept that did not have a name in biblical times but that certainly existed. The words “your sons and your sons’ sons” are the clue. What kind of a story would it have been if Pharaoh, after the first two or three plagues, said, “Moses, you have convinced me. Take your people and get out of here”?

And that’s what it is — a story! We don’t have any historical proof that the Exodus happened, and we don’t need any. As modern Jews, we don’t have to worry whether or not it happened. The Bible is not a history book in the sense of recounting details. It is the history of ideas and beliefs, the history of a people and a religion that has endured for centuries.

The story of the Exodus is a powerful story — the story of how a downtrodden, ignorant people managed to mature and endure, all because they believed in something greater than themselves. They didn’t believe all the time or in every place, but somehow they kept coming back, so that finally, later in this book, they are able to come to the ultimate belief. “Hear O Israel, the Lord shall be One and His name shall be one.”

Does the story have a happy ending? Well, not in the sense that all was peaches and cream from then on. The happy part of the ending is that it hasn’t ended. We’re still here — we Jews, descendants of those Children of Israel. And that is happy enough.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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