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Is a puzzlement! Moshe bargains with Pharaoh-"just let us go on a three day journey into the wilderness where we can sacrifice to our Gd." Pharaoh in turn negotiates, saying "OK, I'll let you go sacrifice to your Gd in the wilderness, only I won't let you go far." (Shemot 8.23-24)
And then Pharaoh adds the most puzzling statement at the end of Shemot 8.24: Ha'tiru ba'adi - most often translated as "Pray for me."
Why would Pharaoh make this odd request? And to be accurate, it's not a request at all - the verb form ha'tiru is a masculine plural imperative. Pharaoh is actually commanding tat Moshe and Aharon (and perhaps even the Israelites) to pray for Pharaoh.
A surface contextual analysis might suggest that Pharaoh was simply asking the Israelites to pray that their Gd remove this plague of insects from Egypt. Yet even this surface analysis leads to the conclusion that Pharaoh was already clearly seeing the Gd of the Israelites as a real deity that he, Pharaoh, as a living deity himself, had to contend with.
Now, we've already seen evidence of that. Pharaoh asks Moshe and Aharon to pray to Adnai to take away the frogs. They do so and Gd makes it happen.
Perhaps Pharaoh didn't need as much convincing as thought. It seems clear already from the plague of frogs that Pharaoh recognizes that the Gd of the Israelites has the power to cause and stop plagues.
So perhaps Pharaoh finds himself wondering "hey, why did I change my mind and not let the Israelites go?" This opens up the possibility that Pharaoh's command "ha'tiru ba'adi - pray for me" is a recognition that he, Pharaoh, is but a pawn in all this. His request that the Israelites pray on his behalf might be due to his realization that this is not going to turn out well, and asking that this Gd make a speedy end of it.
It's hard for me to not have a little sympathy for Pharaoh, now clearly caught up in situation over which he really has no control. Oh, in the past, I, as have so many others, conjecture that it was necessary to play this game with Pharaoh, to harden Pharaoh's heart, to make sure the message of this whole series of events was not lost on all humanity. Still, there are hints here that this Pharaoh was not entirely the evil ogre as he is often portrayed. Had not Gd hardened Pharaoh's heart, this Pharaoh might have given in and let the Israelites go forth from Egypt.
This Pharaoh was not perfect. After all, he did order the slaying of all male Hebrew children. He did make them work as slaves under harsh conditions. And yes, the Torah tells us that the heart hardening was not all Gd's doing (see, for example, Shemot 8:28.)
Still the text reminds us, again and again, the Gd was manipulating the scenario for Gd's own purposes, and that Pharaoh was a victim of this manipulation. It hardly seems fair. Egypt was, by then, already an ancient civilization, with a long and proud history, and a well established theology. Would it be fair for Gd to simply expect Pharaoh and the Egyptians to give all that up instantaneously? Or could Gd have freed the Israelites from Egypt, and allowed them to serve as great role models, eventually converting the Egyptians to belief in the one true Gd?
When it was all over, Pharaoh may have wondered about this, too. Did I really have to go through all that, when I was ready to let the Israelites go early on? Did all those poor soldiers and charioteers have to perish so this Gd could make his point?
But I'm getting ahead of myself. That's a question to be asked a little later this year.
Why do people ask for others to pray on their behalf? That's always an interesting question to ponder. One simple answer the belief that, if one person praying for something is good, then more people praying for the same thing is even more efficacious. More complex or deeper answer can involve issues like whether one feels worthy enough to pray to Gd for something, and wonders if delegating the task to another, possibly more pious type, might insure a better chance that Gd would listen and respond to the prayer.
Even with those explanations, we barely scratch the surface of why one might ask another to pray on their behalf. And the mystery is deepened further when we stop to consider the vagaries of the language - pray FOR me, as in pray as my substitute; or pray for ME, as in pray for my personal well-being; or even PRAY for me, as in demonstrate for me how one prays.
It's not any better in the Hebrew. We can be reasonably confident about the meaning of "ha'tiru" as a the imperative "pray" or "Supplicate", but when we combine it with "ba'adi" we get into another whole realm of possibilities and translations.
Two little Hebrew words. Tagged on to the end of a sentence that's part of a much larger story. A story that is but one of many in our holy Torah. Another mystery for us to unravel. "Ha'tiru ba'adi," pray for me, as I try to understand. I will pray the same for you.
©2003 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some Previous Musings on the same parasha
Not Getting It
Va'era 5762-Early will I Seek You
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