Parshat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)
The saga of the exodus from Egypt reaches a climax in this week’s portion, Bo. After Egypt endures nine plagues in the course of one year, the Egyptians now face the final and most agonizing of them, the Plague of the Firstborn. The Torah provides a concise, piercing and decisive description of this event: “and there was a great outcry in Egypt, for there was no house in which no one was dead” [Ex. 12:30].
Pharaoh, who had thus far ignored his people’s outcries, now realizes that he has no choice other than to send the People of Israel from his land. He summons Moses and Aaron, telling them: “Get up and get out from among my people, both you as well as the People of Israel, and go worship God as you have spoken!” [ibid., v. 31].
Pharaoh then adds, rather shockingly: “Take your flocks and your cattle, as you have spoken, and go, and also bless me” [ibid., v. 32].
Such chutzpah! This man, directly responsible for drowning tens of thousands of Jewish children in the waters of the Nile, ruling over an empire evil that has brutally enslaved the Jews for many generations, has the gall to ask for a blessing from that people!?
Lest we forget, Pharaoh was not releasing the Jews out of the kindness of his heart. He was forced to do so, against his will, because of the horrible plagues his nation suffered. How could he now ask for a blessing? Does this scoundrel deserve any kind of a blessing for finally releasing the Jews from their prison and ending their suffering?
Our Sages understand Pharaoh’s request in different ways. Some suggest that Pharaoh was a firstborn himself, and feared he, too, would perish during the Plague of the Firstborn, so he asked for prayers to be said on his behalf. Yet it seems far-fetched that this is the simple meaning of the verse, since Pharaoh had asked for a blessing, not prayers. And besides, how are we to be certain that Pharaoh was a firstborn?
Other commentators saw this request for a blessing as an entreaty to be pardoned by the People of Israel. This, too, seems to have nothing to do with the simple interpretation of these words.
I would suggest a different possibility: When Pharaoh says “and also bless me,” he means that the Children of Israel should also thank the person who helped facilitate their salvation: Pharaoh himself.
Pharaoh wanted the nation he had enslaved to feel gratitude towards him. It is a preposterous request. He must have been completely detached from reality to believe that the Jews would ever thank Pharaoh for having sent them out of Egypt. The Torah, which, as we know, does not mince words, does not edit out the nonsense coming out of Pharaoh’s mouth. Why is this?
The Torah is teaching us something about ourselves, rather than giving us a history lesson on the ancient Pharaoh. According to Maimonides’ “The Guide for the Perplexed”, Pharaoh symbolizes a person’s evil inclination. Pharaoh, the individual, epitomizes, above all else, the type of person who tries to shirk responsibility for his evil deeds. He wants to live in a world in which he is divine, and where everything operates according to his plans. In this world, all of humanity is subservient to him, and he can behave as the most corrupt person alive without any negative repercussions.
Pharaoh never expresses remorse for what he has done, and does not ask Moshe for forgiveness for his cruelty (as the Germans had done after the Holocaust), because he believes only in himself. He believes that he deserves gratitude, while completely ignoring the reality that he is merely a part of the world in which lives and operates.
Anyone living in denial, refusing to take responsibility for his actions, could naively believe that he is deserving of a reward. This is who Pharaoh is, and this is what Pharaoh symbolizes: a universal human fallacy. The proper response to this is a clear recognition that we must take full responsibility for our actions. And, crucially, to be considerate of those who express sincere remorse and a genuine desire to change their ways.