Is the Ego Bad?
The Exodus marked our birth as a people. We are required to remember the day we left Egypt, every day of our lives. When God revealed Himself to us at Mt. Sinai, He presented Himself not as the Creator of heaven and earth, but as “… your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” The defining element of our relationship with God is not that we are beings created by Him (since there are many others in God’s world), but that we are” free” beings, beings in whom He has invested His own eternity and infinity, beings empowered by Him to transcend the limitations of the material world and the limits of our own natures.
Bo means “come.” The name is derived from the opening verse of the parashah, in which God instructs Moshe to “come to Pharaoh” to warn him about the seventh plague (that of locusts) and once again to convey the Divine demand that the ruler of Egypt release the children of Israel. The Torah regards anyone or anything’s name as the articulation of its essence; especially true in the case of the Torah’s own names for itself and its components. The name of a Torah parashah always conveys its primary message. So, it would be expected that this parashah that speaks of the exodus, would be called “Exodus” or “Freedom”, or some other name that expresses the importance of this event in the history of Israel. Instead, it derives its name from Moshe’s presentation to Pharaoh, an event that seems nothing more than the prelude to the Exodus. In fact, the concept of the leader of Israel going to Pharaoh’s palace with the request to let the Jewish people go – implies that the Jews were still subject to Egypt and its ruler; this seems to be the very antithesis of Exodus.
The phrase “Come to Pharaoh” also evokes much discussion amongst our sages. Why did God tell Moshe to come to Pharaoh? Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to say, “Go to Pharaoh”? The Zohar explains that Moshe feared facing Pharaoh within his palace, within his axis of power. So, God promised Moses that He Himself would accompany him to Pharaoh. The word “come”, can be understood in the sense of “come with me”; where God is saying to Moshe: “Come with me to Pharaoh.” There is also yet another meaning for the phrase “Come to Pharaoh”: “come” in the sense of “enter his interior.” To free the people of Israel from the “great and mighty serpent,” it was not enough to merely go to Pharaoh; Moshe had to enter the core of Pharaoh, into the very root of his power. Here a mystical sense is being given to the situation, but it is interesting to analyze it and see what we can learn. Who is Pharaoh and what does he represent? What is the «most Intimate essence» of him? Why would Moshe be afraid to face Pharaoh in his palace if God had sent him there? And in what way is coming “into Pharaoh” the key to the Exodus from Egypt and the liberation of man’s soul?
Pharaoh’s wickedness is not defined by the promiscuity that characterized the pagan cults of Egypt, nor by his enslavement and torture of millions, nor by bathing in the blood of the slain, but by his self-centeredness, by considering himself the source of all. For this is the root of all evil. Self-centeredness might seem to be a benign sin compared to the acts of cruelty and depravity that man can sink into, but it is the root and essence of them all. When a person considers his being as defining right and wrong, (even if he was initially the most moral of men), his morality is worthless. Such a person is ultimately capable of any act, of considering it crucial for himself or his self-defined vision of reality. Ultimately, every act of goodness becomes an act of self-denial, and every act of evil is an act of self-deification. When a person does a good deed – whether it involves contributing a single coin for charity or dedicating his entire life to a Divine cause – he is saying: there is something greater than me, to which I am committed. When a person violates the Divine will – be it a minor transgression or the most heinous of crimes – he is saying, like Pharaoh: “My river is mine, and I have made it myself.”
So, is the ego bad? Is this fundamental component of our soul a foreign implant that must be uprooted and discarded in our pursuit of good and truth? In the final analysis, no. For the reality is that “there is nothing apart from Him”; that nothing is contrary to, or even separate from, the Creator and Source of all. The ego, the sense of self with which we are born, also comes from God; in fact, it reflects the Divine “ego.” Because God knows Himself as the only authentic existence, we, created in His image, possess an approximation of his Being. It is not the ego that is bad, but the ego’s divorce from its Source. When we recognize our own ego as a reflection of God’s “ego” and submit it to His, it becomes the driving force in our efforts to make the world a better, more Divine place.
When God commanded Moshe to “Come to Pharaoh,” Moshe had already been visiting Pharaoh for many months, but he had been dealing with Pharaoh in various manifestations of him: Pharaoh the heathen, Pharaoh the oppressor of Israel, Pharaoh the god of his own making. Now he was being told to enter the essence of Pharaoh, into the very soul of evil. Moshe was now being told that he would penetrate beyond the evil of Pharaoh, beyond the mega ego in which Pharaoh insisted that he created himself, to face the essence of Pharaoh. God said to Moshe: “Come to Pharaoh” as if to say, “come with me, and together we will enter the great palace of the serpent”. You will discover that evil has no substance or reality; that all it is, is the misappropriation of the Divine in man. When you learn this secret, no evil will ever defeat you. When you learn this secret, you and your people will be free. When we discover who we really are and what we exist for, we are free.
What about the plague of darkness? Our Sages teach us that the “plague” of darkness that engulfed Egypt was not an ordinary darkness, rather it was such an intense darkness that “a man could not see his brother during those three days.” The darkness was like a blindness in which people collided with each other. Three days in which the darkness was so thick that “no man got up from his place – whoever was sitting couldn’t stand, and whoever was standing couldn’t sit down.” This darkness was palpable – like an immobilizing gel. During this entire time, the Torah tells us that “for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings.” Why does the Torah specify that the light was “in all their dwellings”? Why not just say: “The children of Israel had light”, or “The darkness did not affect the children of Israel”?
Darkness contains two elements of danger: the first – darkness brings confusion – a lamppost can be mistaken for a person or vice versa, and second, we are fearful of hitting a wall, a person can be paralyzed in a state of shock. We live in an age of great spiritual darkness in which people are colliding with each other in their blindness. They try to find “something” for instant spiritual elevation. You cannot tell the difference between a pole and a man. A level of complete spiritual immobility has been reached, fear of falling into a well, the world has stagnated. However, in these times of great darkness, the splendor of the Torah continues to shine like a beacon in a dark world …. “And for all the children of Israel, there was light in their dwellings.”
Imagine for a moment, how an Israelite would feel inside his house where there was light. Do we think that when he looked out of his window and saw such great darkness outside, he would feel sad, or to the contrary, he would feel happy and grateful that there was light in his house, and he could move without fear of stumbling? Let us enjoy the light that has been given to us so that we are not afraid to see what Is happening around us, and so that we do not remain stuck in the same place but can move about freely….one small light can dispel great darkness.
God told Moshe and Aaron that they would leave Egypt on the first of Nisan or Aviv, and that month would be counted as the first of the year. This shows us the importance of the exodus event since all the months are counted in relation to it; Instead of giving months specific names, they are listed in relation to the departure from Egypt, as with the days of the week, which in Hebrew are listed in relation to the Shabbat: Yom Rishon (the first day), Yom Sheini, (the second day) and so on, each cycle being fulfilled with respect to the Shabbat.
From the creation of the world to the departure from Egypt, God fixed the beginning of each month. When Israel was created as a people, He instructed them with the precept of Rosh Chodesh – the blessing of the head of the month- which would later be determined by the Bet Din – the Court – from the report of two witnesses who observed the New Moon. At present, we follow a fixed calendar established by Hillel HaNasí in which the beginning of each month is indicated. Our calendar is lunar with adjustments to the solar calendar because according to the Torah, Pesach must always fall in spring. The people of Israel are compared to the moon whose light slowly diminishes until it disappears, but it is precisely at this moment that the new moon is reborn, steadily growing. The history of Israel through the ages reflects the lunar cycle in exile in Egypt, after reaching the peak of oppression, the renewal of hope began. Sometimes the same thing happens in our personal life too. When we are at a point where there seems to be no hope, we must remember that the darkest part of the night always comes before the dawn.
In the tenth plague (that of the killing of the firstborn), the Israelites had to put an identifying mark on their houses so as not to be affected. They were ordered to place the blood from the offering of the paschal lamb upon the threshold of their doors. They were warned to stay home until morning. The Midrash offers an explanation as to why these precautions were necessary: ”Once the destroyer is given freedom of action, he cannot distinguish between good and evil.” This special sign was necessary to divert the Angel of Death. Didn’t this Angel have freedom of action in the previous nine plagues? Why didn’t the children of Israel take steps to protect themselves earlier? The answer lies in the fact that the sacrifice of the firstborn was essentially different from the plagues that preceded it. The first nine plagues brought a specific and limited type of damage and devastation. This last plague was the climax, the final moment of the birthing process, reached when Moses informed the Egyptians about the upcoming plague “the death of the firstborn” (Exodus 11: 4-8). Before leaving Egypt, each family of Israel had to offer – a Korban Pesach – a lamb or a goat, which were deities for the Egyptians and those who did not already have it, had to undergo Brit Milah, circumcision. After the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn, in addition to the animals that the Egyptians worshiped, Pharaoh begged Moses to take his people away. Seventy people had arrived in Egypt and thousands left, including 600,000 men over 20 years of age. The departure from Egypt occurs on Nisan 15 with the festival of or Chag Pesach, which must be eternally celebrated throughout all our generations.
The story of the exodus must be remembered in all its details by obeying His mitzvot (commandments). We must ensure that all our actions and aspirations throughout life are guided by the memory of this story that symbolizes our freedom. The departure from Egypt is not only about the liberation of those children of Israel who were enslaved there, but it was about the liberation of the spirit of us all. That is why it is so important to study the Exodus, to the point that we are commanded every year on the night of the Passover Seder to see ourselves as if we had come out of Egypt. That is why we were ordered to remember the departure from Egypt every day and every night. In a certain way, Shabbat and each of the festivals was instituted as a reminder of this departure since it was there that the spirit freed itself from the yoke of whatever does not allow it to be free to “serve the Creator.”
For the Israelites it was the moment of breaking with the old world in which they had lived in slavery, to make their way to freedom to the land that the Eternal had promised them. But also, for us today, leaving Egypt is getting rid of all forms of idolatry to be able to approach the divine, the one God who incessantly reveals Himself and makes His designs known to us; to leave Egypt is to go deep within our souls and our hearts to find freedom; to leave Egypt is to find God and to walk with Him.