Bo: Language and Translation

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh [bo el-paroh]….”
— Exodus/Shemot 11:1

It is frequently noted that “bo” means “come,” not “go.” Plaut* suggests that “enter,” as in “Pharaoh ‘enters’ into negotiation” makes betters sense. Alter* adds a footnote about the apparent confusion of place and verbs, and both he and Fox* translate the verse without either “coming” or “going.”

Alter references Cassuto,* who believes the passage takes place in “Moses’ mind.” Cassuto concludes:

…we cannot imagine that an actual revelation of the Lord in the presence of Pharaoh and his servants is meant. In all passages preceding and following this paragraph, solitude is a prior condition for every Divine communication, and it is inconceivable that an extraordinary revelation should be referred to in simple, customary terms: And the Lord said to Moses….

…the intention of the passage is to indicate only what was taking place at that moment in Moses’ mind. When Moses heard Pharaoh’s dire threat, he recalled the directives that were given to him long ago concerning the tenth and decisive plague, and he felt that the time for the implementation had now arrived. It seemed to him as if that Divine announcement was reiterated at that moment, and as if the Lord reminded him then that the plague that was soon to come would be the last…. p.132

Kedushat Levi* wonders “why in this case G’d tells Moses to [bo el-paroh], ‘come to Pharaoh,’ whereas elsewhere He told him; [ lekh el paroh], ‘go to Pharoah,'” explaining:

….G’d commanded Moses to “come” to the wicked Pharaoh, i.e. not confrontationally, but as giving him a chance to turn over a new leaf and to redeem himself.

….Another matter that was included in the use of the expression [bo] instead of the word [lekh] on this occasion, is hinted at by the fact that the letters in the word [bo] which are arranged in reverse order to the alphabet, a method usually used when the attribute of Justice is about to be invoked. (pp.330-331)

* Please see Source Materials for complete citations and further information on commentaries and translations.

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Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.

The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group pursuing spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
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