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Parshat Bo

The rules of the game

Moshe and Pharaoh's exchanges show a major failure to communicate, mostly due to Pharaoh's inability to understand what was wanted from him.


Moshe and Aharon begin their visits to Pharaoh with a show of signs and wonders; they turned a staff into a crocodile before Pharaoh's eyes. (7, 10) In the face of this wonder Pharaoh introduces his own sorcerers, who are able to do the same with magic. (ibid., 11) When the plagues begin Pharaoh's magicians continue with the same course of action. When blood fills Egypt they prove that they too can turn water to blood, and they continue this pathetic methodology by replicating the frogs that follow to plague the Egyptians. (7, 22; 8, 3) As a result of their feeble demonstrations of imitation Pharaoh feels that he is locked in a power struggle. Yet during the plague of lice the magicians are unable to replicate the feat and admit that "This is the finger of God," perhaps hoping that their declaration of faith would lead to the end of Moshe and Aharon's demonstrations of God's force.


While it seems that the battle to prove the existence of God as a supreme ruling force in this world has been won, the plagues continue unabated. (8, 15) A completely different goal comes to light. Or rather, a list of possible goals can be found; they are even related to Pharaoh from time to time. These include God's desire to distinguish the People of Israel through the plagues, to draw a clear line between them and the Egyptians, confirming their unique character. (8, 18) Yet this is not the only stated goal. The plagues are also:

"So you know that there is none like me in all the land."

"So I can show you My power and in order that My name will be told in all the land."


These verses make it seem that the plagues are meant to publicize God's name throughout the world and build up his reputation. As the plagues progress the focus shifts from causing harm to possessions- objects and animals- to causing injury to people; "Even to smite you and your people with pestilence." (9, 15) This escalation is not merely meant to prove God's reign over the entire universe and all that unfolds therein, but also to demonstrate that God metes out justice and punishes the guilty. At the same, from Pharaoh's reaction to the plague of hail, "I have sinned this time, God is righteous and I and my people are guilty," it seems that the point of the plagues was to bring about his submission and admition of guilt (in the enslavement or in his refusal of Moshe's request), along with the repentance of the Egyptians. (9. 27; 10, 17)


It is not merely the goal of God's intensive assault upon Egypt that is cryptic; it is not entirely clear what God expects from Pharaoh. What have Moshe and Aharon asked of him? During their first encounters Moshe makes an explicit request that Pharaoh release the People from Egypt, and Pharaoh refuses. (7, 14) Yet in successive requests Moshe specifically asks Pharaoh to let the people go to worship God in the desert, which makes it seem as if he is merely asking for freedom of worship- a release from the yoke of spiritual servitude to the Egyptian religion. (7, 16; 7, 26)


Yet Pharaoh's response at the end of the plague of wild animals (arov) presents yet another picture. When he says, "Go and sacrifice to your God in the land," it makes it seem as if they are discussing a furlough that will allow the people to perform a one-time ritual, and not a dramatic shift in the religious status quo. (8, 21)


The many discussions between Moshe and God throughout the period of these plagues give us a glimpse at the guidance Moshe received and make it clear that from the outset there is a clear goal. From the beginning the goal has been to take the People of Israel out of Egypt permanently. Yet in order to accomplish the goal the People must be released from their bondage to the foreign culture and brought beneath the wings of the Shechinah (Divine Presence). The Egyptians and their recognition and fear of Heaven are not an independent goal, but a step leading to this ultimate end.


To achieve this goal there is a deliberate strategy in place. God performs signs and wonders in Egypt, revealing the devastating grandeur of His might. Additionally, Pharaoh himself is a means to an end; he too is a plague upon Egypt. From the beginning God tells Moshe that "He will not listen to you so that My wonders will be multiplied in the land of Egypt." (11, 9) If Pharaoh had given in at an earlier stage God would have had to reign in His wrath. The Egyptians only realize Pharaoh's part in their suffering at a later stage; "How long will this man be a snare for us?!" (10, 7)


God's path to achieve these goals in Egypt was to plant seeds of confusion, to make it seem like the actions were not methodical- spouting multiple slogans, sending mixed messages, and appealing to both logic and sentiment. God appeared in signs and wonders, yet also caused irreparable harm and injury- and even death. God made many demands, yet in the end not a one of them was actually necessary.


It seems like the only consistent rule God played by was to keep changing the rules, consistently moving the finish line and hiding the endgame. He removed all sense of order and used any and all means. But this confusion seems to be part and parcel of the strategy. There are a number of reasons such a strategy was necessary.


From a theological standpoint the battle between Israel and Egypt is not merely about their salvation from physical enslavement and exile; it is a call against the entire pyramid scheme of power that places a man who calls himself a god above all. All of Egypt belongs to him, including the people- foreigners and citizens alike. As a result servitude seems just as logical to him as decreeing the murder of all baby boys and throwing them into the Nile. The only way to combat a perverted mindset such as this is to stamp out all traces of superiority and bring Pharaoh to his knees.


Yet beyond this mindset which led to such extreme injustices, there is still the element of crime and punishment that must be addressed. Pharaoh used the methodological rules of law and order to achieve his own corrupt goals. Day after days the wheels of justice ground on, taking the lives of men, women, and children whose entire existence was dedicated to fueling his power. The only way to upend this established hierarchy was to sow seeds of confusion that would undermine the bedrock of the entire system.


Yet beyond both these concerns, there is an ideological battle to prove that God's presence in this world is not limited or bound by man's meager powers of comprehension or understanding. "Why did the shattering (of the vessels in the kabbalistic idea of shvirat hakeilim) happen? Because God gives according to His strength and the receiver is limited." (Orot Hakodesh 2, pg. 527) Confusion is part of the human experience. It's intrinsic to the encounter between a person and their creator. Any attempt to find just one explanation of an event or phenomenon- be it scientific, rational, moral or whatever- will never suffice. The only one explanation for everything that comes to be is God- the primary cause. There is no one who has the tools to perceive or conceive of God's revelation in all His glory. This overexposure and high tension environment leads to the wide-range of tactics, theories, and explanations.


The hail did not fall in Goshen. The firstborns of Israel did not die. And while the Egyptians walked in darkness the People of Israel had light. These are not things that can be explained by scientific phenomenon- biological or meteorological; rather they are a spiritual phenomenon. While the Egyptians are looking for an explanation, they are fumbling in the dark. But one who carries the candle of God can find the light even in the darkness of Egypt. 

Sat, June 19 2021 9 Tammuz 5781