Over the course of my career, I have prepared hundreds of students for their bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, and at first, quite a lot of them resist practicing. Are they busy? Lazy? Not interested? Once in a while there is a student who fits into these categories. But the majority of them are something altogether different. They are afraid. Their fear stops them in their tracks, like the proverbial deer-in-headlights. Stuck, they avoid and procrastinate. It is only once they are able to recognize and battle their fear that the preparations begin in earnest.
It isn’t just kids whose behavior is driven by fear. A book recently published ended up on the best-seller list by asking the question What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid? (Michal Oshman). Would you make a change in your career? Would you shift the way you parent? Would you travel? Would you speak up about an injustice? How would a developed sense of courage change your life? What are you not doing because you’re afraid?
After years of running and cycling, I realized that I never seemed to get going at the time I told myself I would. I almost always completed the work-out, but I almost always procrastinated. Was I being lazy? Am I simply a “late person”? No, that’s not really it. I was shocked one day by a revelation that in fact, what I really felt was fear. What if I couldn’t go as fast or as far as my training told me I should? What if it was too painful and I just couldn’t finish? What if my physical goals were left completely unfulfilled? Other random fears crept in: what if I ran into a fierce dog? What if what if what if… and why start, if the end result would be a profound sense of failure?
Fear is everywhere right now. We are afraid of illness; we are afraid of what masks and social distance have done to our children and to our interpersonal relationships. We are afraid that we will always be living in a pandemic, that this “new normal” will wreak havoc on everything we dreamt of doing and experiencing.
Fear is quite possibly one of the most toxic human emotions, the one that holds us back from fulfilling our dreams and realizing our fullest potential. You’d think perhaps by now in human history, we would have figured out how to vanquish it. But fear cannot be conquered once and for all; it needs to be done daily, and in every generation. Our greatest leaders and teachers are not people who do not feel frightened; but they are people who master their fear.
This is exactly what God is trying to teach Moses, and us, in Parshat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16). As a gift to all of us, a tiny, almost unnoticeable linguistic turn becomes a lesson on how to see things a different way. The first few words of our portion, וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה, “vayomer Adonai el Moseh: Bo el Paroh) are usually translated: “And God said to Moses, go to Pharaoh.” In the middle of the story of the Ten Plagues, God says, go back to Pharaoh and tell him to let the Israelite people go. But the word Bo doesn’t actually mean go. It means “come”. “Come to Pharaoh,” God is saying to Moses.
There’s a famous Baal Shem Tov story about a king who wants his subjects to have a relationship with him. He builds a giant fortress with ten walls, and in each and every room there is one of the most difficult tests in the world. After many tests one faithful subject finally arrives at where the king is seated, while the others either fail on the way, or worse, give up when they receive the prizes handed out after each test.
Only one person finally reaches the King’s chamber. Facing the King, he sobs and asks: why did it have to be so hard? Why did you make me go through so many painful challenges, so many tests? The King says: turn around. When the man turns, he sees that the barriers were never there at all. He was always in one chamber with the King the whole time.
That’s the Torah here too. When God says to Moses, “come to Pharaoh,” he is saying “come to Me. Don’t be afraid. I am here behind the screen. All the tests are just from me. With everything you do, you’re getting closer to Me. I am the good found in all the struggle. Come to Me and I will take you high above the darkness of this world, and then I will show you how I was really with you the whole time.” (A parable of the Ba’al Shem Tov)
In the midst of the most frightening challenge that Moses has ever experienced, God is telling him, “I am right here. You think you are going to face Pharaoh, but instead, you’ll be coming toward Me the whole time.”
This is the truth about our lives. Our greatest teachers and guides in the Jewish tradition have chosen to see the world in this way. God sought to teach Moses this lesson at the beginning of his leadership journey, in Parshat Bo.
In that little word “bo”, “come,” we might imagine God is saying this:
You can do this. What doesn’t challenge you will not change you. You are meant to grow and change. My laws of this world (the very laws of physics) require effort and energy to move forward. You are not a people of stasis; have you not learned this by the numerous journeys your people take throughout the Torah?
Moses, if you back away from this challenge, says God, you’ll actually be running away from Me; and when you face this challenge, Moses, know that I am the one who sees your face. Show your best self to me.
When you are most afraid, when you doubt your ability to succeed, remember that you are not alone. I will always be there, especially when it is the most difficult.
Adonai li, v’lo ira: Adonai is with me, I will not fear. It is exactly there, in the hardest things, that we can discover our courage. It is there, in the things that scare us the most, that God is calling us, encouraging us. Parshat Bo’s greatest lesson is: Do not give up.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).