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 to me,” the to me 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 probably not the intended meaning 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 “weigh on” on something and hence impede its proper functioning, especially with regard to bodily parts. Toward the end of his life, Jacob’s eyes “grew heavy” [kabedu] 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 impede the bodily organ’s proper functioning. In fact, Pharaoh’s heart was said to be heavy long before God did anything to him (see Exod 7:13-14). What God did subsequently was simply to keep Pharaoh’s heart from understanding what was really going on.


All this does seem to fit well with the context of the exodus. God made sure that Pharaoh just didn’t realize what was going on. Perhaps he thought 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 algae would then have 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. As to why He didn’t cause Pharaoh’s heart to understand things earlier—that is, before the last of the ten plagues—as many commentators, ancient and modern, have suggested, those plagues afflicted not only Pharaoh but all the Egyptians, because all had been complicit in the enslavement and mistreatment of the Israelites for more than 200 years. All ten plagues were their necessary punishment.


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!

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