The opening of this week's Torah reading is God's command to Moses: “Bo el Paroh”. All too often this is translated (or rather mistranslated) as, “Go to Pharoah.” But in fact, “Bo” clearly means 'come', not go. A slight semantic difference, you might argue. But let's not be be anti-semantic, for any good semite knows that semantics are everything when you're talking Torah. What's more, this is the first word and title of the parsha itself and the title of the parsha is always taken to be an encapsulation of its essence.
So what does this title “bo'' reveal to the semantic-conscientious reader?
First off, it is essential to note that this is the parsha where we witness the actual flight from Egypt. The entire book of Shmot has been building up to this crescendo of final release from the Egyptian strangle-hold. This is the parsha which relays no less than historie's quintessential narrative of 'Leaving'. This is the very GO of “Let my people Go.” The very 'exiting' of the Exodus! So why in the world is the title 'Come' and not 'Go'!?
What is the meaning behind this biblical riddle?
One answer – Paradox. The Torah's subtle insert of 'come' in the place of 'go' can be taken as a hint about the important place paradox holds in all journeys towards freedom. Any seasoned spiritual journeyor can tell you that a hallfmark of the spiritual quest is the encounter with paradox. Physicist Neils Bohr said, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” When it comes to encountering the profounder truths of life, it is inevitable that we come face to face with paradox.
Thus, in our parsha, one paradox is that coming and going are essentially joined. The Zohar, playing off of the word Bo, portrays God ushering Moses from chamber into innermost chamber, until he comes face to face with a mighty serpent, the inmost symbolic core of Egypt.1 The message is that in order to leave Egypt, Moses had to fully come to, enter and encounter Egypt's very heart of darkness. There is no leaving without first fully entering.
But even more paradoxical than that is the very fact that God calls Moses to 'Come to Pharoah' as if God Himself was somehow there with Pharoah....sitting on Pharaoh's sleeve – nay, within his very skin. The implicit message of “Bo” is thus God's alluring promise that when you come to Pharoah, you are coming to Me.
And so it is in our personal lives. When we face Pharoahs, then we find God. I see it daily in my own life and in my work as a psychotherapist. Our Pharoahs are more often than not, ruling our most intimate interactions with our partners, parents, children, friends. We are all in some way enslaved by poor communication and misunderstandings. When we avoid these conflict areas then resentments fester and love and intimacy are slowly bled out of our lives. But when we engage the conflict, finding ways to courageously talk through the misunderstandings, then our relationships flourish. When we face our fears, our foes, our fiends, we find their very opposite – freedom, release, God.
This is the model of paradox taught by Parshat Bo. The Moses in us is able to find the God in Pharoah. Divine grace is inherent even and especially in our greatest moments of pain.
And in the end, the great promise of paradox is that there is a truth that is bigger than what makes sense, a truth that accounts for life's most bewildering contradictions. And what's more – the next time you stumble upon a paradox, remember that it might just mean that you are on the verge of your next great leap into freedom.
The Contradiction has come now
cloaked in her finest clouds
with her Book of Inversions
instructing and sound
Riddled with ridiculous
read silently aloud:
“To be spared the storm
You must first flee the shelter
You must shatter the vessel
to best sip its nectar
You must face your worst
To claim your better
And as for your enemy,
Tis your highest endeavor
To seek out his speech
For God bids from his lips
To seek out his eyes
For in them is God’s glimpse
Your freedom only fits
upon Pharaoh’s fine throne
Your sovereignty sits
Where he sits alone
And take comfort in the fact
that you're bidden here and not there
- It's God alone who calls you
to lure and to lair
Come soft to your Satan
your best friended fiend
and taste the servitude dish
that's reserved for the freed
So come as you leave
and believe while in doubt
for the truths best decreed
by your enemies mouth
And all you risk will be repaired
A thousand fold reward
For in facing your fears
is the face of your Lord
So come, beckoned and blinking,
to the dank serpent's den
coil up with the snake
who sheds light with his skin
Further notes on paradox:
I just had to include these mind-bending examples of paradoxes. The following are statements that illustrate paradox:
1. "This statement is false." - the statement can not be false and true at the same time.
2. "Is the answer to this question no?" (In this case, if you replied no, you would be stating that the answer is not no. If you reply yes, you are stating that it is no, because you said yes.)
- 3. "The statement below is false."
"The statement above is true".
- Other paradoxes involve false statements or half-truths and the resulting biased assumptions. For example, consider a situation in which a father and his son are driving down the road. The car collides with a tree and the father is killed. The boy is rushed to the nearest hospital where he is prepared for emergency surgery. On entering the surgery suite, the surgeon says, "I can't operate on this boy. He's my son."
The apparent paradox is caused by a hasty generalization; if the surgeon is the boy's father, the statement cannot be true. The paradox is resolved if it is revealed that the surgeon is a woman, the boy's mother.
Paradoxes which are not based on a hidden error generally happen at the fringes of context or language, and require extending the context or language to lose their paradoxical quality. Paradoxes that arise from apparently intelligible uses of language are often of interest to logicians and philosophers. This sentence is false is an example of the famous liar paradox: it is a sentence which cannot be consistently interpreted as true or false, because if it is known to be false then it is known that it must be true, and if it is known to be true then it is known that it must be false. Therefore, it can be concluded that it is unknowable. Russell's paradox, which shows that the notion of the set of all those sets that do not contain themselves leads to a contradiction, was instrumental in the development of modern logic and set theory.
Thought experiments can also yield interesting paradoxes. The grandfather paradox, for example, would arise if a time traveler were to kill his own grandfather before his mother or father was conceived, thereby preventing his own birth. This paradox can be resolved by postulating that time travel leads to parallel or bifurcating universes, or that only contradiction-free timelines are stable. An example in modern culture of this is The Legend of Zelda's Split Timeline argument.
- A paradox which is both true and false at the same time in the same sense is called a dialetheism. In Western logics it is often assumed, following Aristotle, that no dialetheia exist, but they are sometimes accepted in Eastern traditions and in paraconsistent logics. An example might be to affirm or deny the statement "John is in the room" when John is standing precisely halfway through the doorway. It is reasonable (by human thinking) to both affirm and deny it ("well, he is, but he isn't"), and it is also reasonable to say that he is neither ("he's halfway in the room, which is neither in nor out"), despite the fact that the statement is to be exclusively proven or disproven.
Why does it say, "Come to Pharaoh"? It should have said, "Go to Pharaoh" .... But G d brought Moses into a chamber within a chamber, to the... supernal and mighty serpent from which many levels evolve...which Moses feared to approach himself... (Zohar, part II, 34a)