In the middle of the night, in Parashat Bo, Pharaoh and his whole court wake up to the horror of the 10th plague: as the firstborn sons are slain, every Egyptian household is suddenly in mourning. Under the weight of this tragedy, the king who fancies himself a god is finally humbled. In desperation, he gives in to Moses' demands of freedom for the Israelite slaves. Pharaoh declares, "Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the Eternal as you said!" (Exodus 12:31).
But at the end of this middle-of-night surrender, as Moses must have already been heading out the door, Pharaoh tags on a surprising request. "Uveirach'tem gam oti," he calls after Moses, "and may you bring a blessing upon me also!" (Exodus 12:32).
I'd often read this line as a bit of a throwaway, hardly worthy of consideration, but when I stopped to think about it, Pharaoh's request seemed incredibly galling. What chutzpah for a tyrant who had until this point been mocking Moses and refusing God's demands, to suddenly ask for a blessing! For the entire narrative in Exodus so far, Pharaoh has refused to acknowledge God's power. And now, in the moment when he finally does humble himself before God, he wants to benefit from God's power to receive a blessing. Even as Pharaoh finally acknowledges the limits of his own power, he still unabashedly focuses on himself.
Traditional commentators interpret Pharaoh's request in several different ways. Rashi, the 11th century French commentator, thinks Pharaoh is being cynically practical. What Pharaoh means, Rashi suggests, is that Moses should ask his God not to let Pharaoh die – because Pharaoh himself is a firstborn son. Because the 10th plague threatens his own life, Pharaoh is suddenly ready to seek God's blessing. Nachmanides, the 13th century Spanish sage, reads Pharaoh's words slightly more generously, arguing that Pharaoh is seeking a blessing not just for himself, but for the entire kingdom of Egypt.
But the most generous reading, and I think the most surprising one, comes from the M'chilta D'Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, an ancient midrash. According to the M'chilta, Pharaoh's request indicates that:
Pharaoh knew that he was lacking in prayer, and God does not forgive someone until he has persuaded his neighbor [to forgive him as well].1
In other words, Pharaoh's change in heart is not just a reluctant surrender by a king who has lost to a more powerful rival, but a kind of t'shuvah. Suddenly, Pharaoh is aware of his own spiritual distance from God. In order to repair that breach, though, Pharaoh must go through Moses. This is the same idea that we emphasize on Yom Kippur in our contemporary Reform liturgy:
For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.2
Now t'shuvah is a powerful force in Judaism, so if Pharaoh did do t'shuvah, the M'chilta reasons, he must have earned some reward for it. The M'chilta then provides a number of biblical verses as answers. It points to the way the Egyptian soldiers died at the Red Sea, indicating that it was a dignified death, a proper burial (Exodus 15:12). It references the commandment, "You shall not abhor an Egyptian" (Deuteronomy 23:8), reasoning that while we were oppressed by Egyptians so many generations ago, we are forbidden to hold on to any hatred, in part because of Pharaoh's t'shuvah.
But it is a third reward suggested by the midrash that I think offers the most intriguing possibility. The M'chilta quotes a verse from Isaiah that envisions a future where the Egyptian people worship God, just as the Jewish people do (Isaiah 19:19). Pharaoh's reward, the M'chilta seems to suggest, is that future generations of Egyptians will not experience the same distance from God that he feels.
But if you keep reading in Isaiah, the imagery is stunning. The very next verse explains the significance of the future Egypt's loyalty to God: "when [the Egyptians] cry out to the Eternal against oppressors, God will send them a savior and champion to deliver them." (Isaiah 19:20).
The reward for Pharaoh's t'shuvah, our midrash suggests, is that one day, God will liberate Pharaoh's people from a tyrant – just as, in our Torah portion, God is liberating the Israelite slaves from Pharaoh. And what's more, this role reversal will culminate in the adversaries becoming allies, each nation sharing in God's beneficence. Isaiah prophesied, "In that day, Israel shall be a third partner with Egypt and Assyria as a blessing on earth, for the Eternal of Hosts will bless them, saying, 'Blessed be My people Egypt … and My very own Israel' " (Isaiah 19:24).
What an image for the moment of liberation! At the very moment when Moses is walking away from Pharaoh, leaving Pharaoh's presence for the last time to go and lead the Israelites out of Egypt – and at the moment he finally emerges victorious over Pharaoh – Pharaoh is planting the seeds for a future reconciliation.
Perhaps that is a true vision of liberation: not simply overcoming the ones who had oppressed us, not simply escaping from their control, but also glimpsing a future, however far-off, when together, we will serve as a blessing.
1 W. David Nelson, trans. and annot., Mekhilta De-Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, Pisha 15:4 (Philadelphia: JPS, 2006), p. 50
2 Gates of Repentance (NY: CCAR, 1996, rev.), p. 324