Parshas Bo contains the final three plagues of Egypt. The title of the parsha, “Bo” refers specifically to the way God instructs Moses to approach Pharaoh as he warns him about the incoming plague of locust.
Hashem said to Moses, “Come to Pharaoh for I have hardened his heart…”Shemos 10:1
Come, is a rather interesting phrase to use for this instruction. Moses is clearly traveling to Pharaoh to give this warning, so you’d think the verb would be go. So something is clearly going on here. What is also interesting is that this isn’t the first time God tells Moses to come to Pharaoh in the course of dispensing these plagues on Egypt. So what’s the deeper idea and why is this parsha named Bo when it has happened before?
Going in Circles
In previous posts, I’ve pointed out that the ten plagues are separated into three groups of three, with the final plague in a category of its own. We know this by a pattern of how Moses warns Pharaoh each time. With the first and second plagues Pharaoh gets a warning. The third plague then comes without Moses going (or coming) to warn Pharaoh at all. Then for the next three the cycle repeats itself.
But when you look at the warning Moses gives to Pharaoh you’ll notice there is a specific way Moses is told to approach the Egyptian King. This is how Moses is told to go with the first plague.
Go to Pharaoh in the morning when he goes out to the water, and stand there to meet him by the bank of the river.Shemos 7:15
The word וְנִצַּבְתָּ֥ is the Hebrew word used for stand. We then see this word given to Moses when God instructs him to go to Pharaoh for the fourth plague (the plague of beasts) and again for the seventh plague (hail).
When it comes to the second plague we see the instruction change.
Come to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what Hashem as said…”Shemos 7:26
Here the word בֹּ֖א (Bo) is used and we’ll see it again for the fifth plague of pestilence and then finally this week’s parsha, the eighth plague of locust.
Rabbi Aharon Feldman brings an insight about this nuance in the language. When Moses stands up to Pharaoh (for the 1st, 4th, and 7th plagues) he does so in public when Pharaoh is out at the Nile. By doing it publicly, he’s really saying, change your outward behavior. I.e. stop doing your bad deeds.
However when Moses comes to Pharaoh, it is done privately, alone, almost in an intimate setting. Here Moses is saying, it isn’t just enough to stop your behavior, you have to change your essence. The intimate setting is as if Moses is trying to penetrate into Pharaoh’s heart, imploring him to cease what he’s doing not just because of consequences, but to understand that what he is doing is wrong.
When we are in relationships, we can try to please another person from one of two motivations. We can decide to take out the trash because if we don’t we know our wife/husband/parent/roommate are going to get angry at us. Or we can decide to take out the trash because we know it might make the other person in the relationship happy. The former is doing the act out of fear of consequences while the latter is doing it as an act of love.
The rabbis say we do mitzvahs for the exact same reasons. To avoid punishments (yirah) and or as an act of love (ahavah). Both are necessary. There are plenty of aveirahs (sins) we struggle with. At first we may need to see the negative consequences to get us to change our behavior because for a long time we will rationalize whether what we are doing is actually wrong or not. And so we may get it into our heads that X aveirah is bad for us. But stopping the behavior isn’t enough. To really change our essence, it takes more than cessation. Eventually we have to transition over to a place of doing it for someone else. And for most mitzvahs the only one we can really do that for is God.
Why Are You Coming To Me With This Now?
As I’ve pointed out above, Moses is instructed to come to Pharaoh in this Torah portion as well as the last one. So why is this week’s parsha titled Bo?
Well it is true that Moses comes to Pharaoh before, in this weeks parsha the stakes get particularly dark. When the locusts descend on Egypt, the swarm is so dense that they block out the sun. And of course, immediately after this, Egypt is terrorized with the literal plague of darkness. On top of that element of darkness, God has told Moses he has hardened Pharaoh’s heart. All in all, Moses’ chances of success seem pretty bleak. Why should he even bother?
To this, the Kotzker Rebbe brings the following insight. When God tells Moses to come to Pharaoh, he is telling Moses that He (God) will be with him. When we feel situations are bleak and hopeless, where God seems to be most absent, in reality that’s exactly where God is. When we end up in a challenging situation and you have no idea how you got there or how you’re going to get out, it is in those moments that God is there waiting to help you out. It’s there that God is most available to uplift you if you’re willing to meet the challenge. He will coax you, assist you, and uplift you so you can persevere, prevail, and be victorious.
So where ever you’re struggling in life, whether it is money, family, work, or anywhere else, know that Hashem is waiting for you to come to him. And though this may require you to make a change, remember that that change is so much more powerful when it comes from a place of love.