With a Heavy Heart


Among the not-so-brilliant sermons I’ve heard over the years was one about this week’s Torah reading, Bo’. “The Almighty,” the rabbi began, “says to Moses, bo’ el par‘oh, ‘Come to Pharaoh.’ He doesn’t say ‘Go to Pharaoh’— bo’ actually means ‘come.’ He’s making the point that He is present even at the very embodiment of evil, Pharaoh himself; ‘Come here,’ he says to Moses, ‘I will be here to welcome you even here.’”


Truly a nice thought, but not entirely accurate. In many European languages, there is a handy verb like “come”— kommen, venir, venire, prixodit’ and so forth—that regularly describes movement in the direction of the speaker. So in a sense, when I say ‘Come here,” the here is unnecessary: come already indicates motion toward me. But Hebrew bo’ doesn’t tell you anything about the direction of the movement; it simply means “enter, go into.” So its opposite is the Hebrew verb yatsa’, “exit, go out,” hence the biblical “Blessed are you when you go in (bo’), blessed are you when you go out (yatsa’)” (Deut 28:6). In this week’s reading, all that God really says to Moses in this first verse is: “Go in to where Pharaoh is…”


The rest of this sentence raises another interesting linguistic question. God says, “Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his courtiers…” What does the Torah mean by saying that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart? A very old tradition holds that this phrase means “to make stubborn.” God tells Moses to go in to talk to Pharaoh, but He warns Moses in advance that this will do no good: He has hardened the hearts of Pharaoh and his advisors, so they will continue in their stubborn refusal to let the Israelites depart.


But this is not the only possibly understanding of Pharaoh’s “heavy heart.” To begin with, it should be pointed out that “heart” in Hebrew is, among other things, the organ of thought (more or less corresponding to the way we use “mind” or “brain” in English). As for the Hebrew root “heavy,” k-b-d, it sometimes means “dull,” especially with regard to bodily parts. Toward the end of his life, Jacob’s eyes “grew heavy with old age; he could not see.”  Isaiah says, “Make this people’s heart fat (sh-m-n), and make their ears heavy (k-b-d), and close up (sh-‘-h) their eyes, so that they won’t see with their eyes or hear with their ears or understand with their hearts” (Isa 6:10). Making someone’s heart “fat” is, like making someone’s ears “heavy”; both words mean to make the bodily organ undiscerning. Now in fact, Pharaoh’s heart was said to be undiscerning long before God did anything to his heart (see Exod 7:13-14). What God did subsequently was to maintain him in this same state of ignorance.


All this does seem to fit well with the context of the exodus. Pharaoh just doesn’t realize what’s going on. He thinks that the Nile did not so much turn to blood as to be filled with red algae (as some modern commentators have likewise suggested), so that the water just looked like blood. This caused the frogs to flee the Nile’s banks and fill the Egyptians houses, where they died, bringing on an infestation of lice-like vermin; and so on. In short, Pharaoh just didn’t understand the true cause of these happenings; he thought it was just a string of bad luck. This is of course not to say that God did not aid in this state of affairs. He did go on to keep Pharaoh’s heart undiscerning, but this is somewhat different from making him stubborn.


One last point, a matter that often confuses native speakers of modern Hebrew. In this week’s reading, Pharaoh keeps refusing to shallea the people. To modern speakers this sounds like the common word for “send,” sheloaḥ. But why would the Torah be speaking about sending the Israelites anywhere? Wasn’t the whole point just to let them go? After that, they’ll go wherever they go.


 Actually, shallea is an intensive form (the pi‘el) of the root sh-l-ḥ. It doesn’t mean “send” so much as “send forth” or, more simply, “let go.” In other words, it doesn’t tell you where the object of this verb is going to end up, only that it is being released or set free. That’s why “Let me people go…” is an altogether accurate translation shallaḥ et ‘ammi.


Shabbat shalom!

2 Responses to Weekly Torah Reading, Bo’, February 4, 2017

  1. Andre Kahn says:

    Thank you for this wonderful interpretation, which I find very compelling.

    Could you please elaborate on the sequence of plagues which would have been a string of bad luck according to Pharaoh’s (and some modern commentators’) “heavy heart”?

    Shabbat shalom

    • admin says:

      I don’t mean to imply that each new plague is a result of the previous one–just that, with a “heavy” (uncomprehending) mind, even the most bit of divine manipulation can seem to be just a natural occurrence. By the way, the plague called ‘arov was interpreted by our rabbis as a house invasion of all sorts of wild animals, which might indeed seem altogether supernatural (and crowded!), since they are said to have “filled” the Egyptians’ houses. But the truth is: no one knew for sure what this word referred to. The interpretation I just mentioned understands this word to be derived from the root meaning “to mix,” hence, a mixture of all sorts of different beasts. But another interpretive tradition held that ‘arov refers to insects, which might work better with the idea of their filling the Egyptians’ houses. Philo’s tradition identifies them as “dog-flies,” since the very name embodies a mixture of two named species, dogs and flies.

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