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D’var Torah for Parshat Bo

01/17/2024 09:02:34 AM

Jan17

Rabbi Rudin

What does it take for someone to change their mind?

Pharaoh is the archetype of the cruel, oppressive tyrant who is so filled with hate, so invested in his own power and ego that he refuses to have the slightest bit of empathy for the people he has enslaved and brutalized.  His lack of compassion extends even to his own people who bear the brunt of the plagues.  “Will you not realize that Egypt is destroyed?” his own courtiers tell him.

And yet even to the very end, even as the waters close over his chariots and troops, Pharaoh remains firm in his denial.  

If plagues, the destruction of his army and the clear cruelty and immorality of slavery didn’t change Pharaoh’s mind, what on earth would? 

Wouldn’t G-d, the Creator of humanity, have known how to make a more convincing argument to Pharaoh?  A sales pitch that would have worked?  Maybe something like, “Say, Pharaoh, if you let the Jews go, you’ll go down in history as the greatest liberator of all time!  They’ll be making monuments to you and singing your praise for millennia!  You can even pretend it was all your idea!”

The same thing happens when G-d tries to convince Moses to assume leadership.  G-d cajoles, pleads, gets angry, reduces the workload and finally splits the job description: from lawgiver and priest, Moses offloads the priesthood to his brother Aaron.

Why is G-d such a lousy salesman?  The art of making the sale, being persuasive, appealing to the customer’s needs, desires and ego - doesn’t G-d get it?

If it were just about making people do things, G-d would have no problem.  When the Jewish people come to the Egyptians to collect their “back pay” for all those years of slavery, G-d tells Moses, “I will give the Israelites grace in the eyes of the Egyptians.”  G-d won’t exactly interfere with the free will of the Egyptians - instead, G-d will add a little extra “rizz” (short for “charisma”- Oxford’s word of the year - oy vey!) to their appeal.  So it’s not that G-d lacks the ability to influence.

G-d does not appeal to Moses’ or even to Pharaoh’s egos.  Instead, G-d calls to the higher self, the potential for good in the person. 

To Moses, G-d says, “I have heard the outcry of My people in Egypt and I know their pain.  Therefore, I will send you, Moses, to take them out of Egypt.”  Now Moses has been a simple shepherd in Midian for decades.  Gone is the passionate young man who struck down the Egyptian taskmaster or even the compassionate man who rescued the shepherdesses.  In one sentence, G-d peels away the years and demands that Moses become again the advocate for justice that he had abandoned. 

Pharaoh has never heard the higher voice calling to a life beyond himself.   G-d’s message to him is simpler: “Thus says Adonai, G-d of the Hebrews: Let My people go!”  Acknowledge that there is a Being higher than yourself and free those whom you oppress. 

Whose was the more difficult call?  To Moses, G-d demands that he revives his soul, resurrecting the man of justice he once was.  To Pharaoh, G-d demands that he grow a soul, become a person capable of empathy and compassion. 

Moses succeeds where Pharaoh fails.  But that call; to awaken the self you were and to become the self you might yet be, is one with which G-d summons us all.  The Rabbis call this inner work of restoration and transformation, Teshuva - returning. 

It’s been nearly half a year since we heard the Shofar sound at Rosh HaShana.  Much has changed since that time.  We inhabit now a world immeasurably darker.  But that call, the Shofar’s call, G-d’s call, is as present, as insistent, as plaintive as ever.  As we read the Exodus story, let us allow ourselves to hear that call as a call to inner work and to outer action, advocacy, tzedaka and restoration.

Eyt Lintoa Ilanot- It is time to plant trees.  In just a week, we welcome Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees.  Let us plant real trees here at home and in Israel through JNF- and let us plant in ourselves the seeds of Teshuva-

Shabbat Shalom-

Thu, February 22 2024 13 Adar I 5784