Parashat Hashavua for Bo
Cantor George Mordecai
The opening verse of Parshat Bo sets the stage for the drama of Moses "stepping into his power", becoming the leader of an oppressed people whom he gradually forges into a nation: "And the Lord said to Moses: 'Go/come in to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I might show them My signs.'" (Exodus 10:1). Moses realises that before he can assume leadership of his people he must face Pharaoh.
Last year a group of us formed a circle in the Emanuel’s Neuweg sanctuary every third Shabbat morning to focus on this verse. We studied Rabbi Nahman’s teaching, where he sees Moses and Pharaoh not so much as individuals but as archetypes. Rabbi Nahman bases his teaching on the Lurianic cosmogenic narrative, where Isaac Luria taught that in the beginning God desired to create the universe in order to be known as rahum v’hanun, gracious and compassionate.
It was important for God to have Creation reflect these divine attributes. In order to manifest Creation, God had to engage in tzim tzum, divine concealment, in order to allow space for Creation. A hallal panuee, vacant space, was formed, where Creation could manifest. The problem with this vacant space is not that it is an evil place but the lack of divine light resulting in God’s concealment means that in this space we see reality in binaries, such as good/evil, black/white …
Through a series of linguistic associations, Rabbi Nahman sees the hallal and Pharaoh as synonymous. It is a very profound teaching. From Rabbi Nahman’s perspective, the hallal/Pharaoh is a very dark and confusing place, where all of Creation is lost in the illusion of duality. It is a place where darkness clouds our judgment, a place where it is difficult to find the Divine. However, God needs the hallal/Pharaoh in order continuously to manifest Creation. So, Pharaoh is a necessary stage—a stage that all of us as created beings have to pass through. We all have Pharaoh within us, in our DNA, but if we can embody the attributes of Moses—who enters the hallal/Pharaoh and rescues all the lost souls there—then we are able to find God in the hallal/Pharaoh, thereby liberating ourselves from the pull of Pharaoh. In doing so we also infuse Pharaoh with holiness, softening the "hardness" of Pharaoh’s heart with rahum v’hanun, Divine grace and compassion.
Rabbi Nahman’s interpretation of the first verse in this week’s parsha might appear esoteric, but the core of this teaching is deeply insightful about our condition as modern human beings. We may liberate ourselves—neutralising the oppressor within—if we can embody the qualities of Moses. These qualities are patience, humility and the ability to see the transcendent face of the Divine in the natural world, realising that freedom is only truly achieved when we are in true relationship with another being, for it is through this service to the "other" that the Divine is manifest in our world.
Rabbi Nahman uses the opening verse of this week’s parsha—“Go/come in to Pharaoh”—as a guide for an alchemical process by which we achieve true inner liberation. This inner work is essential for all of us to participate in, for without it we cannot be true agents for social justice in our world. History is full of examples of people and movements who strove for social justice and equality but became more oppressive than the systems and tyrants that they struggled to replace. We cannot hope to be agents for true and lasting change in our world without first transforming our hearts from that of Pharaoh’s to a heart full of compassion and lovingkindness.