We read in Parashat Bo of the exchange between Moshe and Pharaoh after Moshe warned the king about the impending plague of locusts, when Pharaoh was begged by his servants to yield, and allow Benei Yisrael to leave. Pharaoh informed Moshe that he was giving his consent, until Moshe demanded that the entire nation – including the men, women and children – be allowed to leave Egypt and serve God in the wilderness. At that point, Pharaoh again stubbornly refused, adding, “Re’u ki ra’a neged peneikhem” – “See, there is evil ahead of you” (10:10).
Rashi famously cites an interpretation of this verse from the Midrash (in his commentary to Sefer Yehoshua 5:9, Rashi cites this interpretation in the name of Rabbi Moshe Ha-darshan), explaining that Pharaoh refers here to a “star” named “ra’a” (“evil”). According to the Midrash, Pharaoh was telling Moshe, “I see through my astrology that this star is rising to greet you in the desert, and it portends blood and carnage.” This astrological prediction was partially correct, Rashi writes, except that God “transformed the blood into the blood of circumcision.” Pharaoh accurately predicted the spilling of Benei Yisrael’s blood after leaving Egypt – only that they were not killed, but rather underwent circumcision after crossing into the Land of Israel (Yehoshua 5:3), and the bleeding caused by this procedure was the “bloodshed” which Pharaoh had predicted would be suffered by Benei Yisrael.
What might be the meaning of Pharaoh’s astrological warning, and of the “transformation” of the blood of murder to the blood of circumcision?
At times we might hear the voice of “Pharaoh” in our minds warning us, “Re’u ki ra’a neged peneikhem” – that embarking on a life of service and devotion to God is “evil,” and can bring us “death,” destroying our hopes for a happy, fulfilling life. Just as Pharaoh tried to end Benei Yisrael’s hopes of freedom by trying to convince them that their journey from Egypt would end in disaster, we, too, might occasionally have fears about the outcome of our religious journey, our quest for a connection with God and to live in His service. This journey could appear frightening, or seem to threaten to deny us joy and satisfaction. Like Pharaoh’s warning, these discouraging thoughts are partially true. The path of religious observance indeed demands a degree of sacrifice, similar to berit mila – the ritual of circumcision, which symbolizes a Jew’s willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of the Almighty. If the “Pharaoh” within us tries to frighten us away from religious devotion, warning that it spells the end of a happy, meaningful, productive and fulfilling life, we must respond by “transforming” these predictions of gloom in our minds into “berit mila” – a recognition, awareness and embrace of the sacrifices required by Torah life. Committing ourselves to God, as Benei Yisrael did at the time of the Exodus, does not condemn us to a life of hardship and misery. It requires only “berit mila,” some degree of sacrifice, and specifically by making these sacrifices, we experience great joy and fulfillment.
It is understandable to have hesitations about “leaving Egypt” – ending our “subservience” to mundane commitments for the sake of committing ourselves to God. Such a commitment might strike us as too demanding. The Midrash here teaches us to draw a distinction between “death” and “circumcision,” to recognize that making sacrifices does not deny us meaning and satisfaction, and, to the contrary, actually helps us experience meaning and satisfaction.