Parshat Bo

Friday, 7 January, 2022 - 2:13 pm

They tell an old story about the poor little porcupines, who realizing the dire cold they were in, decided to group together; but, the quills of each one wounded their closest companions. After a while, they decided to go their own way. Soon they began to die, alone, and frozen.

Finally, they had to choose: either accept the quills of their companions or disappear from the earth. Wisely, they decided to go back to being together. They learned to live with the little wounds that were caused by the close relationship with their companions, but the heat that came from others allowed all to survive.

The opening of this week’s Torah portion Bo reads: "And G-d said to Moses: 'Come to Pharaoh because I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants in order that I might show My signs in their midst...'” Two obvious questions: 1) Why does G-d tell Moses to “come to Pharaoh”? Would it not have been more appropriate to say, “Go to Pharaoh”? 2) The sentence “Come to Pharaoh, because I have hardened his heart” is also difficult. What is the sequence? How does the fact that “I have hardened his heart” constitute the reason to “come to Pharaoh”? The Torah should have stated, “Come to Pharaoh and warn him. The fact that G-d has hardened Pharaoh’s heart is not the reason to “come to Pharaoh.”

The Rebbe presented an inspiring insight.

Each of us faces fears, obstacles, and difficulties. We encounter people, situations, circumstances, and facts on the ground, which challenge us, sometimes to the core, scare us deeply, overwhelm us, and bring out the worst in us. They cause us to become indignant, paralyzed, frightened, and miserable. These are natural human emotions. I am trying to do something and then some fellow shows up and tries to undermine me and my work. How do I respond?

We have the fight or flight response. But there is another perspective.

G-d was telling Moses, that it was He, Hashem, who has “hardened his heart.” It was not Pharaoh; His toughness and stiffness are a result of G-d’s doing. Pharaoh it not the one in control. The reason he can develop such a stubborn heart is that G-d allowed him to.

And why would G-d make his heart hard if G-d wanted His people to go free? For this G-d continues telling Moses: “In order that I might show My signs in their midst...” I want to be able to show my people the wonders and miracles I performed in order to liberate them from their oppressive bondage.

We have the fight or flight response. And, of course, at times, one or the other is the way to go. But there is always another perspective that must inform the first two.

I heard this story from Rabbi Shabti Slabatitzky:

Soon after I arrived at the Chabad Yeshivah in Kfar Chabad, I asked the spiritual mentor,  Reb Shlomo Chaim Kesselman, why Chassidim wish one another l’chaim on vodka? (Why not another beverage? Or no beverage at all?

He explained that vodka is different from other liquids. When other liquids are placed in a freezer, the cold atmosphere around them makes them freeze. In contrast, when mashkeh is placed in a freezer, it remains a liquid. Everything around it freezes, but it does not become ice.

Likewise, at a gathering of Chassidim, they make a point of wishing l’chaim on mashkeh, because of the nature of mashkeh, to remind them one should never allow himself to be affected by his surroundings and “frozen,” losing his passion in serving G-d.

But here is the question: how? If I am placed in a freezer, how do I not freeze?

So G-d tells Moses: “Come to Pharaoh because I have hardened his heart.”  


When I encounter a Pharaoh in my life—a potent force that refuses to allow me to be free and to live my life to the fullest, to maximize all of my G-d given potentials and serve G-d with joy, passion, creativity and a full excited heart—I need to recall that this reality was placed here by G-d. “I have hardened his heart.” Don’t get distracted by this guy and his incentives. He is doing what he is doing and G-d will take care of that in due time. As far as I am concerned, G-d wants me to know that it is He who placed this barrier in front of me, only in order to inspire my conviction, to stimulate my courage, to empower my soul, to dig deeper into my integrity, do excavate deeper recesses of the soul, to allow me to flex my muscles and take a stand in life.

What G-d was telling Moses—You must always remember that you never encounter obstacles in life, and therefore you never have to be afraid of them. Rather, they are all part of your journey to fulfill your mission in life. They are not obstructions but passages; not barriers but portals; not blockades but windows to discover who you are and allow you to fulfill your ultimate destiny. Every experience that seems so difficult and traumatizing is really here to assist you to discover your deepest potentials, powers, and energies that may be completely hidden even to yourself.

I once asked an elderly wise person whom I used to approach for advice, "Where do you get such good judgment from?" He answered, "Good judgment comes from a bad experience." He related to me the following story, which had a profound effect on me.

One day, a donkey fell into a pit. The animal cried and whined for hours while his owner tried to figure out what to do. Finally, the farmer decided that since the animal was old, and the pit needed to be covered up anyway, he'd just bury the old donkey right there. He got a shovel and started filling in the pit. The donkey kept up its wailing, but then fell silent. After an hour of furious shoveling, the farmer paused to rest. To his amazement, he saw his old donkey jump out of the pit and trot away!

At first, when the donkey realized what was happening, he cried even more piteously. But then the wise animal hit on a plan. As each spadeful of dirt hit his back, the donkey would shake it off and take a step up on the growing mound of earth. Eventually, the mound grows high enough for him to jump out of the pit.

Life is going to shovel dirt on you, all kinds of dirt. The trick to getting out of the pit well is to shake it off and take a step up. We can get out of the deepest pits by not stopping and never giving up. Just shake it off and take a step up. How do you do that? By always remembering that “I hardened his heart.” That every single hardship and challenge eclipsing your light and obstructing your spiritual growth has no substantive power of its own; it is really a husk that contains a Divine seed, Divine energy, a Divine opportunity. It is merely another pathway in your journey to greatness.

Yes, sometimes, it is nerve-racking. But do not lose composure. And do not lose hope. And do not give it any power or validity. Rather, ask yourself what is my mission here at this moment in this situation, and what is G-d teaching me here?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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