"Bless me": an opportunity missed?

Dealing honestly with people who want our "blessing" when we wonder whether we should give it.

David J. Zucker, Ph.D., is chaplain and director of spiritual care and recreation, Shalom Park, Aurora, Colorado.

On the road to becoming a board certified chaplain, I learned a lesson that I have reformulated as the four Bs: Be there. Be present. Be honest. Be gone.

Be there. Your time, and that of others, is valuable: If you schedule to visit with some one at a set time, honor that commitment. If not, you convey the message that, in your eyes, they do not count or that they lack value. Conversely, simply being where you said you would be when you said you would tells people that you respect them and that you care.

Be present. When you are there, be focused. Make eye contact. Listen, carefully; also listen to what, perhaps, they are not saying. Notice body language and gestures. Be with them, compassionately, emotionally, and mindfully. Be empathetic and interact with them.

Be honest. Never promise what you can't deliver. Do not overstep your limits or your authority. Know when you need to say "No." Even when you are working with somewhat demented people, know when you need to "cross over the street" to meet them where they are. Be honest, even if that means being honest with them where they are.1

Be gone. Leave the office at the office. Leave the meeting at the meeting. Leave the residents at the long-term care center. Leave the patients at the clinic or the hospital. Leave work at work, and do not carry that emotional baggage home. Certainly be respectful of confidences, and do not share professional experiences in an unprofessional manner.

Past application

Using these modern insights and applying them to sacred stories from the past, we can analyze why biblical characters acted as they did in a given situation and then draw conclusions for our own time.

Moses, for example, is the most revered figure of the Jewish Scriptures. He is regarded as the finest model of teacher, prophet, and leader. "Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom [God] knew face to face. He was unequaled .. . for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel" (Deut. 34:10-12).

Moses is not only the teacher, prophet, and leader. At various times, he also is Israel's comforter, advisor, and yes, even chaplain. From a contemporary perspective and using the four Bs, how does Moses fare—even in regard to his chaplaincy?

Moses and Pharaoh

In Exodus 12, the Bible relates the final direct encounter between Moses and the powerful ruler of Egypt. Pharaoh implies that he is defeated by the God of Israel, Moses' deity. Egypt lies in chaos. Ten plagues, each one worse than the one preceding it, devastate the land. The Nile turns blood red. Frogs overrun the country. Insects invade the land, soon followed by the blight of boils and blain. Darkness over all of Egypt follows the brutal storms. Pharaoh's own advisors tell him to relent (Exod. 10:7). Yet he refuses to bend, and the last blow comes raining down on him: the death of all the firstborn in the land.

Now, for the last time he summons Moses and says, "Take your flocks arid your herds, as you have said, and be gone." The mighty ruler, with his own firstborn dead before him, still has a final request. He plaintively begs Moses, "Bless me" (Exod. 12:32, NKJV).

Pharaoh is at his lowest ebb. His own child, his link to the future, is gone. It is a devastating moment. In his dejection and depression he says, "Bless me."

At an earlier occasion Pharaoh had turned to Moses and said, "Plead for me" (other versions, "pray for me," Exod. 8:28 [8:24 Hebrew]), and the Bible says that Moses did so (Exod. 8:29, 30). Now, Pharaoh asks again, but Moses is silent.

Pharaoh, representative of Egypt itself, may be pleading on behalf of his empire. Tell me that we will get past this terror!

Or, perhaps Pharaoh is pleading as a parent, a person in pain, a human being hurt by his own hubris. He is seeking a moment of compassion. It is clear that Moses has access to greater power than do the Egyptians. He asks for comfort in his loss, recognition for his pain, and some soothing word of consolation.

Or, perhaps, Pharaoh is seeking life itself? One Jewish teaching suggests that he himself is a firstborn. Bless me that my life will be spared is what he is asking.2 Or, as another traditional teaching explains, Pharaoh asks Moses that he may be blessed so that the difficulties will cease.3

Why, then, does Moses not offer this requested word of comfort? Is this a missed opportunity? Does Moses fail to act as a chaplain? Does he ignore the wisdom of the four Bs (be there, be present, be honest, be gone)? Further, if Moses does fail, what may we learn from such a failure?


It is possible that, in that stressful moment, Moses said to himself, I am done with Pharaoh. There is nothing more to say. I am now "off duty" and I need not and shall not answer him.

For many who work with the public, be it the clergy in general, chaplains, counselors, or those in allied caring professions, being clear about what is "on duty" and "off duty" time is a continuing struggle.

When are we really "off duty"? The obligation really to say "No" and grant ourselves time away from work is a matter that needs continual monitoring.

But just as being "off duty" is a sensible obligation, so is the struggle to "be on" fully when at the office, at the bedside, or at any moment when we are with people.

A second possibility is that Moses was "on duty" and actually fulfilled his obligations in the moment. In fact, we can see the four Bs:

Be there. Throughout the unfolding drama in Egypt, Pharaoh repeatedly summoned Moses. Following this final devastation, again Moses is there. Pharaoh "summoned Moses and Aaron in the night, and said,'Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship [God] as you said'" (Exod. 12:31).Undoubtedly Moses was there, because Pharaoh is described as addressing him.

Be present. In past encounters Moses certainly was present, he was focused on Pharaoh's statements, and he repeatedly responded to them. Though he does not speak at this moment of their encounter, Pharaoh's direct address to Moses implies not only that Moses is there but that he is focused on the ruler's words.

Be honest. In past confrontations with Pharaoh, Moses has been honest. He has told Pharaoh what would hap pen, and undoubtedly, as night fol lows day, the plagues came as Moses had said. That Moses did not give a verbal answer to the Pharaoh's request, "Bless me," does not mean that he was not honest in the situation. Silence can by all means be honesty. It is possible that Moses felt that there were no words to address Pharaoh's request.4

Be gone. That being so, as noted above, it is possible that Moses felt that he had done all that he could. It was time to be gone, and so he left without a word.

A third option: When Pharaoh says, "Bless me," it may mean some thing totally other than requiring a direct response from Moses. Perhaps Pharaoh is saying, "Take the flocks and herds, and when you sacrifice them to your God, at that point offer a blessing on my behalf."5 If this is the case, there was nothing that Moses needed to say.

Moses' honest answer was to remain silent. Let the Pharaoh think what he wants. Let the Pharaoh request what he does. I shall give neither affirmation nor rejection.

On the other hand, perhaps Pharaoh was using the words "Bless me" in another context. In biblical usage, the word blessing means primarily to invoke good, or good fortune. Pharaoh understands himself, and is understood by his people, to be a god.

Consequently, even in his (momentary) defeat, he regards him self worthy or deserving of "praise." Pharaoh is saying to Moses, "Leave, but praise me before you go." Moses, again in his honesty, refuses.


So did Moses fail to act as a com passionate chaplain to the ruler of Egypt? Did Moses fail to comfort him in his moment of sorrow and loss? Or, did Moses discharge his duty honestly, refusing to pander to Pharaoh's request, whether to pray for him now, or later, or to praise him as a deity? Was this an opportunity for healing lost for all time?

In its context, I understand Moses to have been an exemplary chaplain. On all previous occasions he had "been there," he had "been present," he had "been honest," and then he was "gone."

Pharaoh is not asking for comfort; he is not asking for a compassionate word. He is not seeking to have his life, as a firstborn, spared. And, even more important, Pharaoh isn't asking for forgiveness; he is not repentant or remorseful. Pharaoh still sees himself as ruler, as god-incarnate.

In this setting Moses has to remain silent, and then he needs to leave. This is not an opportunity missed. Moses could not bless Pharaoh in this situation and remain honest to his own values.

In like manner, if as modern clergy, chaplains, or pastoral counselors we cannot be honest, we need to retreat from the situation, we need to be gone.

Be there, be present, be honest, and be gone. Moses accomplished all those tasks. He remained the faithful chaplain.

1 When 85-year-old Hannah speaks about needing to get out to the bus so that she can meet up with her mother, the "honest" answer is, "Yes, I understand that is what you want to do." That is a form of honesty. If or when she says, "Have you seen my mother?" the "honest" answer is "No, no I have not." It is not honest in this situation—and certainly not helpful—to say, "Actually, Hannah, your mother died 40 years ago, and no, you cannot go out to the bus."

2 Midrash Tanhuma (S. Buber Recension) Exodus and Leviticus, John T. Townsend, trans., (Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav, 1997), 3.19 Exodus, 12:29 ff., Part IV.

3 Mekilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Jacob Z. Lauterbach, trans. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1949), Pisha 13.95.

4 For the opposite view, that Moses "failed" in this moment, that he should have offered the Pharaoh a blessing, see Jack H. Bloom, The Rabbi As Symbolic Exemplar (New York: Haworth, 2002), 220, 221.

5 Nahmanides, 12th-century Spain, comment to Exodus 12:32.

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David J. Zucker, Ph.D., is chaplain and director of spiritual care and recreation, Shalom Park, Aurora, Colorado.

March 2004

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