Seeing God in Pharaoh - Parashat Bo

This short D'var Torah was given to Herzl-Ner Tamid Synagogue, WA, for Parashat Bo by Rabbinic Intern Natasha Mann.

Seeing God in Pharaoh

The biggest disservice that the classical rabbis did to our tradition was to demonise some biblical characters and make others into saints. The most obvious and painful example to me is that they demonised Eisav (Esau), whose most significant action was one of profound forgiveness, and they turned lying, cheating Ya’akov into a saint. It’s a disservice because lying, cheating Ya’akov is an interesting character with a tremendous amount of character growth, and the saintly version which the rabbis insist upon makes very little sense at all.

Pharaoh is easily the most despicable character in the Torah. There’s no need to demonise Pharaoh beyond the biblical account. After all, among Pharaoh’s sins are slavery and mass infanticide. And yet the opening line of this week’s parashah should give you pause. The opening line is God saying to Moshe: bo el-Paroh’, usually translated as ‘go to Pharaoh’. Except the word ‘bo’ just doesn’t mean ‘go’ – it means ‘come’. The line should read ‘come to Pharaoh’. And if God is telling Moshe to come to Pharaoh, it implies that God is in Pharaoh. God needs to be there in order to say ‘come’ instead of ‘go’. We all know that there is a Jewish concept of the spark of the divine in every human being, that everyone is made b’tzelem Elokim, ‘in the image of God’. How easy it is to see the Divine in the smiling face of someone you love, or at least someone about whom you feel indifferent. How much more difficult it is to be reminded that the Divine also dwells in a man like Pharaoh.

 What would it mean to see God in Pharaoh? What difference did it make to Moshe when he was told not to go to Pharaoh, but to come to Pharaoh, to approach God by facing Pharaoh? I wonder what it might mean for you to see God in someone you despise. Think, if you can, of someone who fills you with disgust. And ask yourself this: ‘What would change if I saw God in this person?’

What might it mean to see God in those you ignore? There are entire sections of society that we hide away and pretend don’t exist. I used to work serving prostituted persons by advocating for legislation that would both protect them and not encourage higher rates of sex trafficking – which is a more difficult line to walk than you might expect. And one thing that constantly astounded me was how absolutely they were hidden from mainstream society. We find it difficult to deal with the fact that they exist, let alone to see them as human individuals. The Torah tells us to leave the corners of our fields for those most vulnerable and marginalised in society: the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. They should come to your fields, not be hidden away. Because once you see God in them, they cannot be ignored anymore.

And what might it mean to see God in the parts of yourself that you don’t like? Pharaoh, after all, is often used as a symbol of the worst parts of the self – and yet God is in Pharaoh. That part of you that is stubborn, or unkind, or filled with anger – God is there, too. Just like the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, those parts of you should not be hidden away and ignored, because surely you have to reveal them before you can expect to heal them.

So this week I pray for us all, that we should be able to see the face of God in the places it is least comfortable for us to do so.

Shabbat shalom.



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