The Torah Portion “Bo” tells us about the three last plagues out of the ten plagues of Egypt.
Many commentators have already argued that the commandment “Come to Pharaoh” that opens the affair is puzzling because it does not meet the syntactic-linguistic logic of the Hebrew language. It assumes that Pharaoh is not “there”, for then it would have been said “go to Pharaoh”, but that Pharaoh is “here” and therefore the commandment is “Come to Pharaoh”
Where is it “here”?
According to the Hassidic interpretation, the commandment to Moses “come to Pharaoh” in this Torah portion is a commandment similar to the commandment of “Lech-Lecha” to Abraham. Just as “Lech-Lecha” is interpreted as “go to yourself”, so “come to Pharaoh” implies that Moses is invited to come and become acquainted with the shadow part within himself, which is symbolized by Pharaoh, and is found within his soul.
Underlying this interpretation is therefore the assumption that “Pharaoh” is not just the Egyptian king in the story, the same character driven by fear, characterized by a strong need for control with a reluctance to let go, and an inability to be flexible and listen (being very stubborn) But also an inner psychic representation (archetype) that exists in the soul of Moses.
One can of course be content with reading and interpreting the narrative on its face value, according to which Pharaoh is the enslaving king of Egypt, living outside of Moses and enslaving the children of Israel.
But clinging to the visible face-value side of the portion alone cannot fail to leave us with a moral difficulty as to the degree of Pharaoh’s responsibility for the enslavement, when God explicitly says that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart and then also punish him for it.
Influenced by Hassidic interpretation, I choose to address the metaphoric level of the story, and perhaps then we can discover what it tells us about our lives.
If we agree to look at Pharaoh in the story symbolically, as if he represents a part within our self, then — Pharaoh will be the same part in me that tries at all costs to hold on to my “story” and does not allow me to have flexible opinions or release my grip from thoughts, opinions, beliefs and anything I experience as “mine.”
(In the biblical narrative the children of Israel are his slaves, they must obey him and worship him, he is the “God” of all the land of Egypt),
This part shows unwillingness to “buy” a new story: that the children of Israel are the people of the God of the Hebrews and they seek to worship him.
This is a part that is driven by fear of losing control, it resists and shuts himself in the armor against the possibility of listening to another, seeing things from the other’s point of view, and even when for a moment he seems to do so, then he immediately flips back. He has no flexibility or ability to change.
If you read the name *Pharaoh in Hebrew in reverse, you’ll get *Haoref= which means the neck, the back side of the face= face is panim* in Hebrew.
He is not in touch with his face under his mask, he is opaque and closed, like a sphinx, hiding his fears. Nor is he in touch with his panim (Heb. inside) and hides behind a facade in which there is no truth.
The last three plagues in the story are all characterized by darkness:
“And the locusts spread out across the land of Egypt, right to all its borders, a very heavy plague of locusts like none that had gone before it, and none that came after it.
And the locusts covered the face of the earth and brought darkness… Shemot 14-16”
And Moses stretched out his hand to the heavens, and there was darkness – pitch black — throughout the land of Egypt, for three whole days. (Shemot 22)
וַיֵּ֥ט מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־יָד֖וֹ עַל־הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם וַיְהִ֧י חֹֽשֶׁךְ־אֲפֵלָ֛ה בְּכָל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם שְׁלֹ֥שֶׁת יָמִֽים׃(שם פסוק כב’)
The plague of the firstborn:
And thus said God, at midnight I will go out throughout Egypt and every Egyptian first born will die. (Shemot 11:
One could say that Pharaoh lived in the kingdom of darkness and shadows, very far from consciousness and light.
In a last attempt to bring about a transformation, God treats Pharaoh (the dark part of the soul) through darkness — and seemingly succeeds: Pharaoh agrees to send the people away, but the reward is only temporary and short-lived. Pharaoh repents and pursues them until the abyss closes in on him. He returns to the kingdom of darkness.
God seems to harden the heart of “Pharaoh” and strikes time after time in order to enable the process that is required for change.
This transformation is not a trivial matter and cannot take place without a process.
Any attempt to speed up the process – and those who practice psychology can attest to this – will lead to the opposite result, to clinging stronger to the old patterns that do not serve autonomous free choice.
How many times do we repeat the same destructive patterns in our lives over and over again (fall in love again and again with a partner who is not emotionally free for having a relationship, find ourselves repeatedly in unconstructive relationships, find “new” things to enslave ourselves to, etc.) until we succeed in getting rid of the old pattern and make an autonomous choice?
Why is it not possible to learn the lesson after one attempt?
You may have to experiment a few times, go through several attempts, in order to understand that there is a pattern, to recognize that there is a “story”. Wonder about it and try to understand its origin and meaning. And in order to be able to change the “story”, to be ready to receive a new story, you have to try to tell it to someone, maybe even hear it reflected back to you from others, and while telling the story, processing takes place, clarification comes, and with it the ability to break free and invent a new story.
And perhaps that is why we were commanded to tell in every generation the story of the Exodus from Egypt? Because the story itself is the beginning of liberation?
It seems to me that all the characters in the story may be seen as internal representations of our psyche (archetypes) that need a process that eventually will come out of the darkness into light. From enslavement to freedom:
Even the Hebrew people, who are still bound by the patterns of slavery (and so symbolic that when they leave Egypt, they have to cross the threshold of the door smeared with blood, just like in a birth canal)
Even Pharaoh who is enslaved to his fears.
Even Moses whose identity may not have been finally formed, (as raised by two mothers, a son of the slave people on the one hand and an Egyptian prince on the other) also needs a process of “rebirth” and identity formation, and perhaps that is why God instructs him to “come to Pharaoh” because as long as he will not get to know the dark sides within him, he will still remain captive to them.
May we all be blessed to be able to have a dialogue with the “Pharaoh” within us, help him release his grip on the story that runs him, and convert the fear of the unknown into curiosity, openness and a sense of surprise for the future to come.