In parashat Bo, we reach the climax of the story of the Israelites in Egypt. We read about the final plagues — locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn, the one that finally breaks Pharaoh’s will; the first Passover; and the exodus from Egypt.
Surely, one of the amazing elements of this story is Pharaoh’s obstinance — he sees more and more of his kingdom destroyed, but he won’t let the Israelites go. His courtiers beg him to relent — “Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” — but he won’t let the Israelites go.
Someone once defined insanity as repeating the same actions over and over again and expecting different results — and that certainly describes Pharaoh. At most, as conditions become almost unbearable, he attempts to bargain with God:
• After the fourth plague, he tells Moses, “You can’t leave, but you can perform your sacrifices here in Egypt.” Moses refuses.
• After the seventh plague, Pharaoh tells Moses, “The men may go into the wilderness to worship your God, but there’s no way I will allow you to take your children.” Moses refuses.
• After the ninth plague, darkness, Pharaoh summons Moses again and says, “All right, you may all go, but you must leave your livestock behind.” And Moses objects yet again, saying that the Israelites will need their animals for sacrifices.
Some people never learn!
According to the chasidic Rabbi Yehudi HaKadosh (Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Rabinowicz of Peshischa), the conversation went something like this:
Pharaoh said, “One is able to serve God purely in one’s mind, without any action. If you indeed wish to serve God, why do you need to take along your cattle with you? Go, serve the Lord — with the proper intentions, with a pure heart, and you do not need to take your cattle for sacrifices.”
These words could almost have been said today — there are many people who echo Pharaoh’s arguments:
• “Why do I need to go to shul to pray, and why do we need a fixed order of prayers? I can go out into the woods and pray to God by myself whenever I feel moved to do so. Certainly that’s more meaningful than reciting somebody else’s words written down hundreds of years ago.”
• “And why bother with all these old-fashioned rules and rituals — kashrut, Shabbat, etc.? Do this, don’t do that — why do I need all this? After all, I’m spiritual, not religious. I’m a Jew in my heart and that’s enough.”
Well, this is how the Yehudi HaKadosh said that Moses responded to Pharaoh: “Good intentions which are not accompanied by action are valueless.”
The spiritual Jew could, of course, go out and pray in the woods, but he probably won’t.
The point of religion, as opposed to spirituality, is to turn our intentions into actions, to make sure that we not only declare our beliefs and values, but live them.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.