Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Parashat Bo' - I, and Not an Emissary; I, and Not a Messenger


The Ralbag – Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, (Languedoc, Southern France, 1288-1344) known to the non-Jewish world as Gersonides – comments on the odd language in the first Pasuk of our Parasha (10:1). Translated freely, the Pasuk reads: “And G-d said to Moshe, come to Pharaoh. Because I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order to place these signs of mine in their midst.” The Ralbag questions the word “Come” – should it not be “Go”? Does G-d stand at the throne of Pharaoh? Also, the Hebrew says ki ‘ani hichbadeti et libo – For I have hardened his heart. The verb form is sufficient to indicate first person singular, yet the Pasuk also uses the pronoun ‘ani – I – really as if to say “because I… I have hardened his heart…” Perhaps the still more profound question is: why does G-d need to tell Moshe anyway? Do we not know that everything that happens comes from G-d? Why is G-d spending all this time telling Moshe “I have done this” and especially, telling Moshe – “I was the one who did this. Me!”

The Ralbag, explaining Peshat in the Pasuk, explains that G-d forewarned Moshe that he would be rejected. But Pharaoh has rejected Moshe countless times, through signs and wonders, and through seven plagues. Why should Moshe expect different treatment this time? The difference, the Ralbag tells us, is that now G-d has stepped in. Indeed, it is in this Pasuk (10:1) that G-d announces for the first time “I have done this.” As we have seen, Pharaoh did not need any assistance in hardening his own heart against Bnei Israel. He carried on his own escalating stubbornness through the plague of the cattle. It is only after the boils that the text tells us that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Parashat Va’era, chapter 9, verse 12). And only now, at 10:1, that G-d informs Moshe that it is fact G-d who is causing this to happen.

But is G-d purposely sending Moshe to fail? The Ralbag’s explanation is that G-d requires Moshe to go and stand before Pharaoh, because now Pharaoh’s natural resistance, his ongoing rejection of Moshe’s plea, has been transcended, and G-d is involved for the specific reason – stated numerous times in this narrative – of causing G-d’s power to be seen, G-d’s name to be glorified.

The verb Bo’ appears in other expressions in ways that seem odd to us. Bereshit 28:11: “… and he [Yaakov] spent the night there, ki va’ ha-shemesh – because the sun had set…” Chazal explain that the setting sun is returning to G-d, to be renewed and sent forth again the next morning, and that when phenomena move in a direction away from G-d, their action is described as Going; when they approach, or return to G-d, they are said to Come. Pharaoh, too, was on the wane, just as the setting sun flares up, then dips behind the horizon and is gone. And G-d is, in a sense, where Pharaoh sits, because G-d must be involved in making the miracle.

We should make further observations about the language in the Pasuk. Throughout the narrative, the text has had G-d using the words Kaved lev – translated here as “Hardening of the heart.” But the words themselves have other meanings. Kaved – the word translated as “Hard” – means “heavy”. And rabbinic commentators have pointed out on numerous occasions that the word Lev – “Heart” – in Biblical usage is properly translated not as Heart, but as Mind. Mind, to be sure, in its broadest sense, but it is not until the writings of the Chassidic masters that the dichotomy of Heart / Mind is brought to the fore. The Tanya is, in one aspect, a discourse on the opposition of Heart to Mind as representing Consciousness and Emotion, and ways to bring them into harmony, and to bring both into the service of G-d. Thus, the notion of Hardening Pharaoh’s Heart primarily means making his mind heavy.

The first occurrence of Pharaoh’s rejection of Moshe’s plea is at 7:13, where the text states va-yechezak lev par’oh – And Pharaoh’s heart was strengthened, from the root chazak, meaning “strong”. Every occurrence thereafter uses the word kaved or verbs derived from that root meaning “heavy”. The first time, Pharaoh’s resolve is strengthened. Subsequently, his thought process becomes sclerotic. He will not allow himself to free himself from the decision he has made. His thinking has become weighted down by the need to be consistent, to adhere blindly to his pre-set course. A powerful ruler does not change his mind. Pharaoh, who is both the temporal ruler and the earthly deity of Mizraim, can not give in to coercion. We have never negotiated with terrorists, Pharaoh is saying, and we are not about to give in this time. I will not move.

Counter to the immovableness of Pharaoh, Moshe is struggling to break the bonds that tie him to old ways of thinking, old behaviors. If he is to realize his potential – both as a human being, and especially as leader of Klal Israel – he must step into the full blossom of his own power, must embrace it. Must wear it like a garment. Must become it. G-d has been urging Moshe to this all along, but it is a difficult thing. More difficult to give in to the pressure to debase ourselves is the struggle to allow ourselves to soar, to allow free rein to all our powers and potential. It is so much easier to live of life of If Only than to take control and live a life of I Shall, Because I Must.

From their very first encounter, G-d has been urging Moshe to recognize that he possesses all the power necessary to change the course of history. The literary theme by which this plays out is most strongly reflected in the use of Moshe’s staff. First, though, let us remember G-d’s very first instruction to Moshe: (Shemot 3:5) “Do not draw near hence; take off your shoes from upon your feet, because the place that you stand upon is holy ground.” If Moshe were being properly instructed, we might expect G-d to make sure he removed his shoes before he took his first step on the holy ground. Is the space of holiness so vast that it encompasses the entire mountain, but only was called to Moshe’s attention because of the appearance of the Bush? Did G-d need to test Moshe, to see whether he would approach the Bush?

More: does G-d need to ascertain whether Moshe would, in fact, stop and remove his shoes? Perhaps like Avram, Moshe is the right man in the right place and time, but not the only man in that place and time. The Chassidic masters say that G-d is always calling to all of us: Lech lecha – Come. But only one person in all of human history heard and heeded the call. Like Avram, Moshe is not merely placed face to face with Holiness; his actions and demeanor demonstrate that he recognizes Holiness. G-d’s stream of communication with all of Creation is constant and unceasing; it takes a rare person, though, to receive it.

Put off your shoes, G-d tells Moshe. Your own feet will lead your people out of Mizraim. A few lines later, at 3:10, G-d explains why it was important for Moshe to remove his shoes. “And now go, and I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall take out my People, Bnei Israel, from Mizraim.” You, G-d says. You in your bare feet. You yourself. No tool, no weapon, no messenger, no intercessor. You, Moshe, the man who recognized Holiness when you saw it face to face.

But if the encounter at the Bush is akin to Chochmah – the Flash of Insight – Moshe now has the problem of being conscious of what he has just experienced, and the early stages of Binah – of Thought – are often a bar to action. Did I really experience this? Am I really going through with this? The phenomenon of Thinking as an act of self-stupefaction is touched on in certain Chassidic writings. Rav Kalonymos Kalman Shapira, the Piacezna Rebbe, wrote extensively on education and on processes of mind, and he describes in Zen-like terms the way in which thoughts lose their impact, their very meaning once we become aware of them. We are able to think only in images, he writes, and thus a pure thought – Chochmah – can not break through in all its breadth and profundity. Rather, the instant our mind becomes aware of a new presence (a thought arising from the unconscious) it grabs the intruder and clothes it in familiar garments. Thus, the mind forces new notions into old forms, and only thus can it deal with the strange, the new, the expansive: by forcing it to speak in the Mind’s constrained and meager learned vocabulary.

At Shemot 4:2, G-d asks, “What is that in your hand?” And Moshe answers, “A staff”. The first Sign is done with Moshe’s Staff. The second, with his Hand, which Moshe hides in his robes and withdraws, then hides again, where it heals of its leprosy.

And that is not all. Moshe, who is instructed to Walk and Talk, now complains that he can not speak. The text does not return to the imagery of Moshe’s feet, but it does focus on his inability to speak clearly as G-d assures Moshe that Aharon will speak in his stead. And so, at 4:21, G-d instructs Moshe to return to Mizraim: “… see all the wonders that I have placed in your hand, and do them before Pharaoh, and I will strengthen [‘achazek] his mind and he will not send out the people.” In the Yosef narrative, the literary use of imagery of the Hand refers to Pharaoh. Power resides In the Hand of Pharaoh, and the phrase repeats numerous times. Now, Pharaoh is about to lose control, his empire is about to be devastated by a force far greater than anything Mizraim could ever imagine. The power is moving from the Hand of Pharaoh to the Hand of Moshe.

But, like Yaakov and Yosef before him, Moshe must learn to wield his power. This, to return to the Ralbag’s Peshat, is the reason G-d sends Moshe in this manner: (10:1) Come to Pharaoh, because I have made his heart hard. This is the first time G-d explicitly tells Moshe, I have done this. Come, G-d says. I am waiting here, where I have accomplished this terrible miracle of robbing a human being of Free Choice. And because I have chosen, and made, that it be so, Pharaoh will reject your plea, and he will not listen, no matter what you do. And let us see then, says G-d, whether you can learn to wield your own power to become my partner. For ultimately, it is not any of Moshe’s actions that causes Mizraim to send us out, rather it is G-d’s direct intervention and the killing of the firstborn. The reason for forcing this escalating cycle of confrontation, the Ralbag says, is to demonstrate the glory and power of G-d.

Starting at Shemot 7:10, Moshe begins showing the Signs and Wonders. Per G-d’s deliberate instructions, the first of these are performed with the Staff. Very quickly, though, G-d tries to wean Moshe from the unnecessary instrument and transfer the power to Moshe himself, where it properly resides. By the third Sign, G-d says (7:19) “Take your Staff and lift up your hand upon the waters of Mizraim…” The word Lift up – neteh – is from the same root as the word for Staff – mateh – both coming from a root meaning To Lift. The Staff is so named because of its up-and-down orientation. It is a static physical representation of the act of moving up and down. How much more powerful is the hand of a person who carries that power within! Take your Staff, G-d tells Moshe, but lift your hand – for it is in your hand, in your self, that your power resides.

G-d gives one more lesson, to make sure Moshe gets it. At 8:1-2, G-d tells Moshe to instruct Aharon to lift up his hand with the staff. Aharon lifts up his hand – no mention of the Staff in verse 2 – and the frogs come up. Finally, at 8:12-13, Aharon strikes the dust with his staff and brings forth lice.

By chapter 9, G-d has taken off the gloves. G-d instructs Moshe (922) “Lift up your hand to the sky and there will be hail…” And Moshe lifts up… (9:23)… his Staff. And in this week’s Parasha, at 10:12-13, G-d instructs Moshe to raise his Hand in order to bring the Locusts, but Moshe uses the Staff.

Finally, at 10:21-22, G-d instructs Moshe to raise his hand, and Moshe raises his hand, bringing the Plague of Darkness. Now that Moshe has finally begun to learn to use his own power, now he – and through him, Klal Israel – can become a partner to G-d. The Rabbis say: as it is above, so it is below. What is often the case, though, is that it requires first an impetus from Below to invoke action from Above. Now, finally, G-d can enter the scene. Moshe may slide back, he will have his moments of doubt and frustration, but he has shown that he has learned G-d’s primary lesson: the power resides within him alone, and only by taking it upon himself to do this Thing, only by this will Bnei Israel become a free nation.

And now that G-d has a willing and able partner on Earth, G-d can move freely. G-d says: I will pass through the Land of Mizraim and I will execute judgments. I, G-d. As the Haggadah repeats: I, and not an emissary; I, and not a messenger. I. G-d. For G-d will not become directly involved in human affairs until we have prepared the ground. Yet, all it takes is one person. Noach was one. Avram was one. Moshe is one.

Introducing the final section of the Parasha, at the beginning of Chapter 12, are the verses which Rashi famously identifies as the true beginning of the Torah, the giving of the first law to Klal Israel: (12:2) This month is for you the beginning of months; it is the first for you of the months of the year.

The surface meaning of the text is that we must structure a different calendar. We are leaving a society where we lived as slaves. Our time was not our own, but we were tied to the whim and rhythm of our masters, all the way up the Mizri Great Chain of Being, from the overseers who beat us at the mud-pits, to Pharaoh himself. On a level of basic Peshat, this is seen as the commandment to fix a Jewish calendar.

Halachically, the use of the words lecha, lachem – yours, both singular and plural – is determinative. When a person borrows another person’s Tallit for an Aliyah, for example, the borrower is not permitted to make a Berachah on the Tallit. The Pasuk says – “… and they shall be lachem Tzitzit…” Yours. The Halacha is that one may only make a Beracha on one’s own Tallit.

Ha-Chodesh ha-zeh lachem… This month belongs to you. Previously, our lives belonged to other people. Now, our lives are our own. But we have no homeland in which to establish this way of life. Nonetheless, G-d tells us, our own time will become our home. The cycles of Shabbat and the holidays will create a sanctity that will spill over into the days and moments of our lives. Each moment, from now on, is only and all of what we make of it. In Mizraim, we could blame our masters for our losses. I had to sit all day in the market waiting for my mistress. I had to wait in line at the well waiting to water my master’s oxen. No more. Now, each moment belongs to us. To create in. To do. To cherish and to build a future.

Time, the days and moments of our lives, these are our own personal equivalents of Moshe’s Staff, Moshe’s Hand. The power lies within each of us. G-d has given us this freedom and this Torah in order that we may learn to exercise our power to the fullest. That, by becoming full partners with G-d, we can draw G-d down to become involved directly in human affairs. And unspoken, but clearly communicated, is the corollary to that notion: we shall be praised for each moment we create something of value in this world. And for each moment we waste, we shall be called to account.

Yours for a better world.