Charles Sprague Pearce, Lamentations over the Death of the First-Born of Egypt, 1877, Smithsonian Museum of American Art
Torah Talk on Bo 5779
This week’s portion of Bo features the actual Exodus from Egypt. The climactic text is very familiar from Passover Seders and movies, but it is no less dramatic for its familiarity. Moses and Aaron warn Pharaoh the final plague is coming. God tells the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb and put its blood on their doorposts to protect themselves from the coming calamity. At midnight the Angel of Death visits the homes of every Egyptian, from the Pharaoh on his throne to the prisoner in the dungeon, and the firstborn male son of every household dies. Even the livestock lose their firstborn sons.
After long refusing freedom to the Israelites, after ten plagues and every underhanded manipulation he could invent, Pharaoh finally gives up. He literally throws the Israelites out of Egypt saying, “Go away from my people!”
There is an ironic twist at the end of this freedom narrative in Bo, even before the Pharaoh’s fruitless quest to recapture the Israelites at the Sea ends badly for the Egyptians in next week’s portion of B’Shalach. Pharaoh has already ordered Moses and Aaron to leave his land, but before they can go he says,
“Be gone! But bless me first.”
This is a strange thing to say to your enemy, to whom you are now, essentially, surrendering—get out, now! But before you go, give me a blessing…
There is pathos in this request. For Pharaoh has been an arrogant and magnificently stubborn opponent. Moses’s request was for religious freedom for the Israelite slaves, three days to worship God in their own, Hebrew fashion. Rejecting this simple plea Pharaoh instead multiplied the slaves’ work and reduced their supplies, increased their misery in the time-honored tradition of every union-busting tyrant in history. This combination of arrogance and egotism has now brought death to his country—and to his family. Pharaoh’s own eldest son, his designated successor, has just died. And now he says to his antagonists, Moses and Aaron, “Bless me, too!”
Interestingly, the Torah does not record Moses’s response to this strange request. Did he offer a prayer for Pharaoh? If so, what is the suitable blessing for a brutal, genocidal god-king? Was it a mourning prayer for his dead son? Or was it more like the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof, “May God bless and keep the Pharaoh far away from us.”
After nine plagues’-worth of direct evidence, the overwhelming power of Moses’s God has become clear even to this human representative of Egypt’s polytheistic gods, a man who may even believe himself to be divine. And in that surrender a little bit of humanity from Pharaoh peeks through: my gods are discredited, my blessings and curses are overthrown. In my mourning, in my confusion, in my despair, I need blessing from my worst enemy.
There is something peculiarly human about this, just as true today as over three thousand years ago. Often in life we seek blessing not from those who support us and agree with us but from those who don’t. We long for the respect, if not the love, of those who are hardest to please and least likely to accept us.
Sometimes the approval or admiration of our enemies ranks higher in our estimation than the steady praise of our acolytes.
As Jews, we know this odd motivation well. How often do we struggle with the need for approval from figures who do not give it easily, with the lack of unconditional parental love, the absence of regard from those from whom we most need it, the near desperate desire to be accepted?
That is not to say that Pharaoh is a needy Jewish child, nor Moses an uncaring Jewish father. The Pharaoh of this story is an evil, megalomaniac tyrant. But, apparently, megalomaniac tyrants have emotional needs, too. Even in a warped person the human need for parental approval remains.
In a story filled with drama and power the plaintive request, “Bless me, too!” adds a human note. We all need to find blessing. Pharaoh never does. He soon regrets his emotional weakening here in Bo, and chases after the Israelites to further his own ruin.
But perhaps we, who have done so much less wrong than Pharaoh, and who need blessing at least as much, will be able to find it in our own lives.