The Torah portion of Bo opens when God commands Moses to go to Egypt and speak to Pharaoh. Many point out the difficulty with this simple word – bo, ‘come’, in this context. The phrase literally translates as “Come to Pharaoh.” The more appropriate word to use would be “lech”, which means to go, “Go to Pharaoh.”
The Chassidic Master, Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, who was known for his sharp and insightful comments, answers this question in the following way:
“You are only asking this question because you assume that God
is standing at a distance from Egypt and is sending Moses to go there.
But what if God is already there? God is present among the Jews in their
suffering. In that case God would not say “Go there” he would say “Bo”,
“Come here. I am already here.” ‘Bo El Pharaoh”, come here to Pharaoh,
come here to Egypt.”
The simple word ‘bo’, ‘come’, teaches that God is not distant. God was with the Jew in Egypt.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik taught that this idea of God’s closeness to man, even in times of suffering, can be learned from the text of the Torah itself:
God appears to Jacob the night before he and his family begin their journey down to Egypt and says to him: “Don’t be afraid…I will go down with you to Egypt” ( Genesis 46:3,4).
Rabbi Soloveitchik said that this exchange demonstrates God teaching man that even when it may appear that I am distant and hidden, in truth, “I am close by, I am with you.”
These are the moving words of the Rabbi Soloveitchik on this verse:
“Not only are the Jewish people in exile, the Shechina, too, is in exile.
Not only are the Jewish people homeless, the Shechina is also homeless.
God Himself participated in the march from Egypt. He traveled with us from
Egypt because He also went with us into Egypt. He was in bondage,
and He was liberated with us. He was a fellow traveller.” (Mesoras HaRav
The story of our suffering in Egypt has its roots in a much earlier episode. God reveals to Abraham that his descendants will indeed suffer in a foreign land. They will be tortured by another nation ( Genesis 15). Rabbi Soloveitchik finds it striking that God would introduce himself to Abraham at the beginning of this revelation; after all, Abraham has had many prior communications with God.
אֲנִי ה’, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים
“I am the Lord who brought you out of the Ur of the Chaldees”
Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests the following answer:
“This is the beginning of a friendship between God and Abraham” says the
Rav…”God befriends man, and man and God are two friends, two
comrades…To be a friend, you have to introduce yourself…God wants the Jew
to feel that he is an associate, a comrade, a friend…” ( Abraham’s Journey)
Up to the time of Brit Ben Habetarim, ‘The Covenant of the Pieces’, Abraham’s life in Canaan had primarily been one of fulfillment. However, God now reveals that things will not always be as they are now. In the future the Jewish people will have periods of total darkness where they will not be able to defeat their enemies.
Says God to Abraham:
“I helped you; you prospered…But now begins the period of waiting and
expectation, of faith and prayer….But don’t think that you have actually lost Me;
I will be with you nonetheless. I am the same God.” (Abraham’s Journey)
In this epic dialogue between God and our father Abraham, God reveals His everlasting affection and loving embrace even when He may appear distant.
This theme of God’s closeness to man, even in his suffering, is borne out in another dramatic episode. In this case however, Jacob powerfully describes how he personally felt God’s closeness even in the most brutal of times.
As Jacob nears the end of his life he says that God always remained close to him. Jacob says: האלוקים הרועה אותי HaElokim Haroeh Oti (Genesis 48:15). Most translate this phrase as “The God who was my shepherd” (similar to the Hebrew phrase רועה צאן , roeh tzon, a shepherd of sheep).
Rabbi Soloveitchik, however, prefers the translation of the Ramban, Nachmanides ( Genesis 48:16). He translates the word roeh to mean friend ( as in the Torah the phrase,
‘ואהבת לרעך כמוך’, ve’ahavta le’reacha kamocha). Jacob describes God as a close friend.
At a young age Jacob was forced to run away from home, fleeing for his life, as his brother Esav sought to kill him. He was tricked by Laban his father-in-law, for whom he had to work twenty years under harsh conditions. His only daughter, Dina, was raped. He believed that his beloved son Joseph had been killed and lived in inconsolable sorrow for twenty two years. Jacob ends his life removed from his homeland, the Land of Israel, and closes out his life as a foreigner in Egypt. Through all the suffering Jacob endures in his life – at the end of his life he says, “I always felt God’s closeness, God has been a friend and a comfort to me.”
It is striking that when Jacob blesses his grandchildren the essence of his blessing is that they too should merit heavenly protection: ”המלאך הגואל אותי מכל רע” Hamalach Hagoel Oti Mi Kol Rah, “The Angel who saved me from all evil, please provide for the youth…” Jacob sums up his life as one in which he felt God’s closeness and His protection; God watched over me, He was always there for me.
Our father Jacob embodies the reality of the religious personality who courageously holds fast to his faith even in the face of loss and pain. Jacob articulates that it is God who provided him with comfort and peace of mind while he withstood so many tribulations.
This lesson that we learn from Abraham, Jacob, and Moses provides us with a window into the challenging experience of human suffering. The spiritual awareness that God is present in our pain has helped the Jew withstand some of the most difficult and challenging of circumstances.
Knowing that God is with us can be a lifeline of strength and comfort. Knowing that God is ever-present in our lives fortifies our resilience and gives us the means to move forward, to live with hope and optimism, much like our beloved ancestors. The Torah reveals through these dramatic episodes, that although not always apparent during dreary and dark times, God is always there with us; God continuously extends to each of us His presence and loving embrace.