Come to Pharaoh
There’s no doubt about it: this week’s parsha, Bo (come/go), is one of the most dramatic in the entire canon. Seven plagues have failed to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave, and God gets down to business. Locusts. Darkness. The tension is palpable as we move toward the tenth and terrible plague, toward the moment when the Angel of Death is allowed to travel the land freely seeking out firstborns.
And therein lies my dilemma. I love the point in the narrative when the Hebrews (and a mixed multitude of fellow travelers) buckle up their sandals and stage their fabulous escape with a last ambivalent goodbye to home, roasted lamb in their bellies and barely dry matzah piled up for provision, babies and grandmas hustled into carts – and yet…
There are moments before this moment I love that trouble me — when Moses is forced to only see his side so that he can do what is required of him. Blood, frogs, lice – Moses & Aaron cooperated in every sign and wonder, each one of which made someone (human or beast) suffer. Yes, some of the suffering is a reasonable exchange for 400 years of slavery, but much of it (most of it?) is inflicted on vaguely innocent bystanders. I imagine there were times when our famous prophets/ activists had second thoughts.
And that’s the subject of this week’s poem, The Line, which starts Solzhenitsyn’s thin line, the one in each of us dividing good from evil. In the poem’s background is a teaching by Rabbi Arthur Waskow: the first word of the parsha, Bo, is usually translated as GO (to Pharaoh) – but the Hebrew verb can also be translated as “come”. COME to Pharaoh, in other words: the hard-hearted, hard-headed, hard-boiled ruler inside each of us. None of us, in other words, are wholly innocent: our actions, no matter how justifiable, are never without consequence.
p.s. Author Francine Prose has given up her celebration of Passover because of the plagues and their centrality to the liberation narrative. I’m not with her on this, but Prose does remind us that the rabbis, too, struggled with our delight at the terrors visited on our enemies (think: spilling drops of wine).