parsha of the week

In parsha Bo’s battle of egos, the contest’s not close


When one reads the opening of Parshat Bo, it is hard to ignore the question of who has the bigger ego — Pharaoh or G-d?

Over the course of the previous seven plagues, Pharaoh has actually given in four times. He allowed the Israelites to leave during the plague of frogs, twice in the plague of beasts, and once in the plague of hail. In each case, however, after the plague dissipated, he changed his mind, likely because his ego wouldn’t allow for him to give up his slaves so easily.

In G-d’s case, it seems that the plagues have taken on a life of their own, with their objective having become “So that Pharaoh will know that I am G-d.”

We all know who is going to win this proverbial battle of wits. It’s not even a contest. But the truth is, if the objective is for Pharaoh to learn who G-d is, that was achieved during the plague of hail when Pharaoh declared, “I have sinned. G-d is righteous, while I and my nation are wicked!” (9:27)

It’s difficult to pinpoint the turning point — with Pharaoh standing stubbornly in defiance of G-d, versus when G-d Himself strengthened Pharaoh’s heart. It first happened in the plague of boils, and we’re told in the prelude to the plague of locusts that “I have hardened [Pharaoh’s] heart as well as the heart of his servants, so my signs can be spread through them.”

It seems unfair at this point — even if Pharaoh were to give in, he has other devils controlling his mind. He doesn’t stand a chance.

Rabbi David Fohrman has developed an innovative approach to the differences between the phrases “va’y’chazek et libo” and “va’yakhbed at libo” (strengthened and hardened his heart, respectively) which is worth perusing on his Alephbeta website. In a shiur I heard on, Rabbi Zev Leff argues that the purpose of any strengthening of Pharaoh’s heart was to make it that he wouldn’t give in and let the Israelites leave Egypt on account of the plagues — he needed to come to the realization on his own that letting the slaves leave was the right thing to do, irrespective of plagues.

Which brings us to the question of G-d’s ego.

There are many ways to explain G-d’s role in the world, what He represents, what He wants of us, and why He created the world in the first place. Some of the answers include the desire to have a world of emet (truth), chesed (kindness), shalom (peace), and of course to spread His word and teaching through the Torah. Prior to the Torah being given, His purpose was for His Name to be known, an objective concretized by Avraham following the failed efforts and non-efforts of previous generations.

Is this egotistical? You create a world, and You don’t want its inhabitants, particularly those capable of the greatest intellectual and spiritual heights, to forget about You? You don’t want them to take You and Your world for granted? This isn’t ego, this is normal, this is healthy pride. If I’m a CEO or business owner, I’d like my employees to at least know who I am and that their positions are guided by my rules.

It is true that Pharaoh seemed to recognize this in the plague of hail, but six verses after asking Moshe to pray for the hail to go away, we see that once the hail is gone, “And he continued to sin.” (9:34) Rashbam and Chizkuni note this timeline, suggesting that the explanation for the heardening of Pharaoh’s heart is Divine influence, based on the opening verse of our parsha in which G-d said to Moses, “Come to Pharaoh. I have made him and his advisors stubborn, so that I will be able to demonstrate these miraculous signs among them.”

Prior to this, we’ve seen G-d strengthen Pharaoh’s heart after the plague of boils, but not specifically after the devastating plague of hail. So what gives? Why does G-d take credit for Pharaoh’s heardened heart in the foreshadowing of the plague of locusts, and not in the immediate aftermath of the plague of hails, where such credit would be due?

I think the answer is that the heardening of Pharaoh’s heart is not an unfair tactic utilized by G-d to delay Pharaoh’s chances of salvation for himself and his people. Pharaoh prepared to let the slaves leave multiple times, and each time he backpedaled. And, after the hail, not only did he backpedal, but he sinned and doubled-down in his obstinance. What does it take, after you’ve said that G-d is righteous, to recognize the folly of your position?

For Pharaoh, it is a huge ego. He can’t admit he’s wrong for more than a minute. Even when the evidence is staring him in the face.

There is a lot of talk these days about what is right and wrong, who has an ego, who is a narcissist, what is best for this country, for other countries, for the world. Those of us who practice a little humility know we don’t have the answers, even if we think we know what’s correct. The world is complicated. Nothing is black and white.

Except, in the end, that this world is G-d’s world, and we must answer for the way in which we behaved and interacted with others. We can yell and scream all we want about how we understand injustice and what it means. But if we are yelling and screaming and never respectfully listening to another point of view, we are not demonstrating the kind of qualities that are godlike — truth, kindness, peace. If, in the end, the purpose of the plagues was for Pharaoh to learn about G-d, we too must never remove G-d from how we relate to others. All people are created in the image of G-d.

What they do in the name of that image determines how we treat them, whether refugees and immigrants from across the globe or a neighbor with whom we have political differences.