Ever been tested by a seemingly insurmountable challenge only to find that it melts away as soon as you face it head on?
When we’re limited in our spiritual aspirations, the opening words of this week’s Torah portion serve to remind us that sometimes that which limits us ultimately serves to lift us ever higher. Or in the words of Jim Morrison, all that’s needed is to “break on through to the other side.”
Although some popular English translations of the Torah have Moses being commanded to go to Pharaoh to offer one of the last demands to let the Jewish people free, the actual Hebrew word used, “bo,” literally means that Moses was to “come to Pharaoh.” It’s a curious word choice, to be sure. In other places, the Torah uses the more literal “lech,” but here, according to several commentaries, the switch in verbs indicates that while up until now, Moses was supposed to approach the ruler of Egypt from afar, here he is commanded to draw near to the evil king.
By way of illustration, the Ba’al Haturim explains that when Pharaoh is at the Nile — most of the warnings issued prior to the onset of individual plagues occurred next to the river — the Torah uses the verb for “going.” But when Pharaoh is in his palace, as he is here, the word for “coming” is more appropriate.
The lesson, however, deals with far more than grammar. The Hebrew word for Egypt, “mitzrayim,” can also be read as the plural form of “suffering.” The biblical Egypt was the source of suffering of the Jewish people, and Pharaoh, its ruler, was the root of it all. When faced with our own personal Egypts, we can be aloof to the challenges outside and endeavor to just keep adding goodness to our lives. But that’s approaching the problem from afar. What’s ultimately required is to face our trials and tribulations head on, to approach them where they are and face them like Moses.
The skeptic may ask if victory is assured. The answer can be found in the second half of the verse. The Almighty tells Moses that although Pharaoh has been the one keeping the Jews enslaved, he really has been without free will for some time, “for I have hardened his heart … in order that I may display these My signs among them.”
When faced with problems in their spiritual lives, many think that the answer is to just keep on trucking, to keep doing good. What’s missing in this approach, however, is the equally necessary task of eliminating the bad, like Moses going to crush the Egyptian evil at its root.
But there’s an even higher approach: Recognizing that the limitations holding a person back are, in reality, not limitations at all. Just as Pharaoh himself was used as a tool in order to set in motion the miraculous Exodus, so too spiritual challenges are merely Divinely-created opportunities in disguise.
The fact that Moses did not waver should provide a source of strength for all of us. Like those who witnessed the final three plagues recorded in this week’s portion, we are awaiting the day when all limitations, both spiritual and physical, finally are overcome.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: jrunyan@ chabad.org.