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  • Gail Albert

Torah and Coming to Pharaoh With Martin Luther King, Jr.

Exodus 10:1-13:6, Bo, "Come"

At this point in the narrative, Pharaoh and the Egyptians have faced seven of the ten plagues. He has repeatedly promised to let the Israelites leave and then taken that promise back. The three worst plagues are now about to be unleashed: locusts, darkness, and finally the one that breaks Pharaoh’s will long enough to tell the Israelites to leave: death of the first-born.

Pharaoh above all believes in his own power. That he is stronger than anyone else. Domination is what he knows. And is driven by that belief. To those who knew Egypt millennia ago, it was understood that each of the plagues (Nile turned to blood, frogs, insects) referred to a different Egyptian God, with the final one being Pharaoh himself, as father of his children and of all of Egypt. The force we label God was pitting itself against each of these in turn, and one by one, overcoming them. In this story, God simply dominates over the dominating Pharaoh.

But the point of this power is to free the Israelites, the slaves, the least powerful of all, the powerless. The point is in God’s initial response, I heard the cries of distress and so I am here. To have compassion, including love for the marginalized.

And in the mythic tone of this narrative, we have a protagonist who feels compassion for the marginalized struggling with an ultimately weaker protagonist who universe has consisted only of he who dominates and those who are dominated by him. Compassion has never had a place--his heart is hard.

We tend to struggle with the phrase God has hardened Pharaoh’s heart, because it implies a lack of free will on Pharaoh’s heart. A better translation, pointed out by Richard Elliot Friedman, an eminent modern day translator of Torah, is “strengthened.” God strengthened Pharaoh’s heart. And remember that in ancient Hebrew the word “lev” for heart means “heart/mind. Because then we can say that all God did was give Pharaoh the capacity, the strength of mind/heart to hang on, to persist in whatever direction he chose. His heart/mind was strengthened whether he wanted to continue on his course of domination or if he suddenly chose the other direction.

So here we are, in what is always an extraordinary moment of just coming to Martin Luther King Day, wit Reverend King a modern day Moses, a man who spoke in the name of God’s compassion, who spoke up to the Pharaoh’s of his age for his marginalized people, his who had also been slaves not that long before and were still denied full citizenship. Or anything like it.

And here we are today, in the midst of the incredible last 4 years that have culminated, let us hope culminated, in the horrific scenes of the invasion of the capital by Pharaoh’s followers, in the name of a President whose heart/mind like Pharaohs knows only domination, followers who in large part have the same world view: there is domination or being dominated. Some were there to take power in the name of delusional conspiracy theories, many—possibly most--in the name of white nationalism. Against those who say that Black Lives Matter. Who say that Jewish lives matter. Who embrace the diversity of this nation.

So here we are. And the question of course is in what do we do? Is voting really enough?

And what about members of our family? Or even friends? Can we approach these subjects of power and discrimination? Of power and systemic racism? What is our obligation before the Pharaohs of our society, large and small?

And what about the Pharaohs in ourselves? In what ways do we too contain any of Pharaoh in us. Wanting to maintain our own privilege, not even noticing how much our own lives have depended on white privilege. My own experience..

I have no answers.

But there is another word in the text that is so problematic and that takes us to yet another place in Torah. “Bo.” It is frequently translated as “Go.” Moses is told to “Go to Pharaoh.” But the other time the word is used, is when Judah goes to Joseph to beg that Joseph free Benjamin. Here he goes to the men just next in line to Pharaoh, who heart appears to have been strengthened in its hardness, who appears to show no compassion. And he goes to him. To beg for compassion for his father, an old man who will die, Judah is sure, if he loses his youngest beloved son just as he has lost his older. Judah has himself lost two of his three sons. He knows about loss more than most men. Much like the man who is now about to be our President. And out of that pain, that suffering, his heart is open to the father who has never favored him, but who has favored and still grieves for his brothers Joseph, long gone and dead, and now Benjamin. And so he pleads with Joseph from his in open heart.

The word “Bo” means come, not go. So rabbis have commented that “coming” is to draw near, to connect, to feel closer to. And so Judah opens his own heart, connecting with Joseph as another human being, like himself, another being made in the image of God regardless of what he his power is or what kind of person he has become. And in the opening of Judah’s own heart, Joseph melts. Into compassion himself. And he reveals his true name, reveals himself to his brothers whom he has just opened his heart to.

It is easy to become overwhelmed by the realization of our own acceptance of racism in our society, and of our acceptance of the privileges that whiteness has given us, even though we are Jews. And so while we turn our selves toward undoing these structural changes, we need also to offer compassion to ourselves for our ignorance, compassion so that we can go forward with strengthened hearts rather than weakened by our shame.

And even more. We all know that the Torah eventually asks us not only to love our neighbor as ourselves but to love the stranger as ourselves.

So the question is to somehow open our hearts as much as we can not merely to the powerless who are strangers to us, but to those who wish to keep power over them, remembering that all humans have free will and some capacity to change. Coming toward them, strengthening our own inclination toward a loving heart/mind, so that we are not ourselves consumed with the blindness of righteous rage toward those with whom we disagree as we work for change. “BO.” To come toward the stranger, whether the one outside or those aspects of our own selves that we would like to disown, to follow both our ancient prophet Moses and our modern Prophet, Martin Luther King.

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