Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Parashat Bo: Enter

By Amichai Lau-Lavie
Verse Per Verse

This week’s Torah episode is named after the heroic act that is described in its very first sentence: BO – Enter. Moses enters, again, into the Pharaoh’s boardroom, the domain of oppression, the narrowest of the narrow places known as Mitzraim- Egypt. On a literal level, one may read this scene as it is told in Hebrew Schools this coming week, or around the Seder table in months to come – this is a historical fight for freedom between slaves and masters, starring Moses as the good guy and Pharaoh as the bad guy who dies at the end.

But, wait, did this ‘really’ happen? Is this ‘history’ or ‘myth’ or both or neither? Whether one buys into this story as ‘historical reality’ and believes that the Bible describes real events or not is an important discussion that has certainly made its way beyond the religious sphere and is now dominating the public sphere – including the 2008 race for the presidency, arguably the most religious in recent memory. Which of the candidates would claim that the Exodus really happened and which would voice the modern view that these are but allegorical descriptions of the human yearning for meaning via symbolic tales? (and, on that note, which of them is destined to become a liberating Moses, and which – a feared Pharaoh?)

This morning I had the privilege of hearing Professor Arnie Eisen, the new and impressive Chancellor of JTS, address a room full of rabbis at the JTS Rabbinic Training Institute, just outside Baltimore. Discussing faith in the modern age, he challenged the current trends seeking validity for the impact of Biblical tales in scientific or archeological ‘proof’. There are some basic assumptions of faith, he claimed, and one of those assumptions is the presence of these stories in our lives as inherited sources of inspiration. Later, at breakfast, we sat together and discussed the weekly portion – he had just seen a Storahtelling version of BO and was impressed by our ability to ‘raise the Torah to its original level of importance and impact’. He discussed the word ‘BO’ as we translated it – enter – get in there – get under the skin of the King in order to radically change who he is. The modern tyrant is not a human being, not necessarily, he mused – it is a condition, and sometimes an institutional reality, resisting change..

So where does the tale of Moses entering the presence of the Pharaoh relate to modern personal experience? Where is the un-historical validity that makes this text matter?

The key is indeed in the word itself – BO – translated as ENTER but also as COME or perhaps GET IN THERE. The basic command should have been GO – why is this odd usage of word? Many commentaries have dealt with this question, and offer a variety of translations and solutions. The Zohar considers this to be one of the real secrets of the life of faith - a recipe for dealing with self renewal in profound way. Moses represents the part of the self that is motivated towards change and growth. Egypt – and the Pharaoh – represent the part of us that is narrow minded, short of vision, reluctant to change. In order to really change and become more of who we want to be – we must enter that place inside ourselves that resists innovation. We must, like Moses, ENTER the very domain which holds us back – and this is often a scary, dark place.

“Rabbi Simon said: It is time to reveal the secrets as they emanate from above and below. What is the meaning of “Come into the Pharaoh”? It should say “Go to the Pharaoh”. Rather, God led Moses into rooms within rooms.. God said to Moses, come – with me, into the Pharaoh” (Zohar Bet 34:B)

It isn’t just that we are inspired and instructed here to enter the dark places in order to come out into the light – it is also, according to the Zohar, a task that we will not be asked to do alone. ENTER the Pharaoh, but not alone – says the Zohar, go with God – with an inner faith in the process, in the inevitability of the triumph of freedom and progress over the tyranny of fear.

Faith or fear, history or myth, this weekly episode of the world’s best seller is another reminder, harsh and tender at once – enter to exit, and may the force be with you.

Shabbat Shalom.

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