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
It is certainly hard to think of Pharaoh as one with even a hint of remorse. Our Haggadah paints him as evil incarnate; yet, with her close read of Parashat Bo, Rabbi Kalisch cracks open the door towards Pharaoh's redemption. Another midrash goes further, making Pharaoh into king of Nineveh.1 When Jonah comes calling, that Pharaoh is only happy to repent.
This latter midrash demonstrates how t'shuvah – returning to God – is a constant practice. Like exercise, it has no end. What, then, can we institute in our lives to help us along our journeys of turning and returning to God?
The end of Parashat Bo gives a hint. In both verses 9 and 16 of chapter 13, the text says, "And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead." The text refers to tefillin, those little black boxes that Jews traditionally wear in prayer. And Torah gives a reason, "in order that the Teaching of the Eternal may be in your mouth" (Exodus 13:9).
While the early Reformers excised tefillin and other, "Mosaic and rabbinical laws that regulate . . . dress" from Reform practice as part of the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform as, "their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation,"2 they may have missed the point. Just as Mishkan T'fillah suggests that uttering m'chayeih hameitim (reviving the dead) is metaphoric3 and may have meaning beyond a physical view of bodily resurrection, so too may wearing tefillin or other religious garb speak to us in ways that go beyond strict traditional explanations. These ritual objects can serve as a constant tug on our souls, reminding us how we are to behave, how we are to continuously engage in t'shuvah, in returning to God.
The Talmud records how Rabbi Zera was never seen to walk four cubits without a scroll of the Torah, without fringes on his garments, and without wearing tefillin.4 This reminds us how wearing or carrying physical objects can enhance our mindfulness, be it a kippah on our heads, a Magen David around our necks, or even a picture of our family on a smart phone. These physical reminders can also tug gently on our souls. Does wearing a kippah cause you to ease up a bit on the gas? Does the Magen David cause you to speak gently? Does your family picture remind you to text appropriately? While only a minority of Reform Jews may wear tefillin today, these are some of the other things we can do, "in order that the Teaching of the Eternal may be in your mouth."
1. Midrash Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer 342
2. The Pittsburgh Platform, CCAR, 1885, https://ccarnet.org/rabbis-speak/platforms/declaration-principles/
3. Mishkan T'filah, (NY: CCAR, 2007), footnote on pp. 78-9, 169
4. Babylonian Talmud, M'gillah 28a
Rabbi Daniel Gropper is the senior rabbi at Community Synagogue of Rye in Rye, NY.
Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 448-471; Revised Edition, pp. 405–426;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 355–378
Haftarah, Jeremiah 46:13−28
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 700−702; Revised Edition, pp. 427−429