“The More Things Change…”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Bo, the enslavement of the Jewish people comes to a dramatic conclusion with the tenth plague–the death of the Egyptian first born. As Moses had predicted (Exodus 11:8), not only did Pharaoh allow the Israelites to leave, but he actually chased them out of Egypt (Exodus 12:31).

The Torah describes the sense of mayhem that enveloped Egypt after the death of the firstborn. With his people in panic, and every home stricken with victims, Pharaoh comes running and shouting at Moses (Exodus 12:31): “Get up, get out from among my people, you and the children of Israel!” The Egyptian people joined Pharaoh in hastening the Israelites, to drive them out of the land, because they said (Exodus 12:33), “Koo’lah’noo may’tim.” We are all going to die!

As the people of Israel were about to leave, they took their dough before it had time to leaven. They then bound their garments up on their shoulders and fulfilled the final instruction that Moses had given them. (Exodus 12:35) “Va’yish’ah’loo mee’mitz’rayim k’lay cheh’sef, ooch’lay zah’hav, ooh’s’mah’lot,” They requested from their Egyptian neighbors silver and gold vessels and varied garments. The Torah informs us(Exodus 12:36) that the Al-mighty gave the people chain–favor, in the eyes of the Egyptians, and the Egyptians granted their requests. As a result, “Va’natz’loo et Mitz’rayim,” they [the Israelites] emptied out Egypt.

One might be under the mistaken impression that the “looting” of the Egyptian homes by the Israelites was a spontaneous action of freed slaves. No such thing! In fact it was a well orchestrated act–by G-d. In His discussion with Moses in preparation for the plague of the Death of the First Born, G-d tells Moses to speak to the people, Exodus 11:2: “Dah’ber nah b’ahz’nay hah’ahm, v’yish’ah’loo ish may’ayt ray’ayhoo, v’ee’shah may’ayt r’ooh’tah, k’lay cheh’sef ooh’ch’lay zah’hav,” G-d says, please speak in the ears of the people, and let each man request of his fellow, and each woman from her fellow, silver vessels and gold vessels. G-d then predicts that the Israelites will find favor in the eyes of Egypt. In fact, the Torah tells us, at that time, Moses was held in great esteem by the Egyptians.

Contrary to the scene of crazed slaves looting Egypt, the Talmud in Berachot 9a notes that the words “dah’ber nah,” please speak, indicate that the Jewish people were resistant and reluctant to take anything from the Egyptians. Utilizing a parable, the Talmud explains the that people’s reluctance may be understood by comparing the Israelites to a prisoner who had been incarcerated for a long while. Unexpectedly, the warden informs the prisoner that tomorrow his master intends to release him and give him a significant amount of money. The prisoner, however, responds to the warden, “Forget the money, just get me out of here now!” And so the people of Israel desired nothing but to be relieved of their slavery in Egypt. Therefore, says the Talmud, Moses was actually forced to convince and persuade the Israelites to take the possessions from the Egyptians. The Rif (Rabbi Issac Al-fasi, 1013-1103, Fez, Morocco and Cordova, Spain) actually says in his talmudic commentary that the Israelites were loathe to take the Egyptians’ possessions in an unethical manner!

We may ask, why was it necessary at all for the Israelites to take the belongings of the Egyptians? Says the Midrash, because, after all, the Al-mighty had promised in the Covenant between the Pieces, (Genesis 15:14), “V’ah’chah’ray chain yaytz’oo bir’chush gah’dol,” that after [their 400 year slavery and persecution] the Israelite people would leave with great wealth. Had the Al-mighty “merely” released the people from the Egyptian bondage, the Israelites might have complained: “The part of the Covenant about the bondage and the persecution, G-d fulfilled, but what happened to the promise of great wealth?!” (Talmud, Berachot 9a & b, cited by Rashi, Exodus 11:2)

The rabbis are troubled by the Israelites looting of Egypt and particularly by the fact that the verse says that they requested or “borrowed” these belongings from their Egyptian neighbors. The Ibn Ezra in his commentary asserts firmly that this was the will of G-d, and that mortals have no right to question. G-d, the Creator of everything, gives wealth to whom He desires. He takes wealth from one and gives it to another, because everything in the world is His.

But, after all, isn’t G-d expected to be an ethical diety who rewards and punishes in accordance with moral principles? In response, our rabbis point out that the word “va’yish’ah’loo” (Exodus 12:35) that is often translated from the root word “to borrow,” does not necessarily mean to “borrow” at all. In fact it often means a “gift.” As proof, Rabbi Saadiah Gaon (882-942) points to the verse in I Samuel 1:28, where Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, says: “Kol hah’yah’mim asher hah’yah hoo shah’ool la’Hashem,” that as long as he [Samuel] lives, he is lent to G-d.

Other commentators take a very different tack, noting that the property the Israelite took from Egypt was not stolen. After all, it was exchanged for property–real estate and furnishings, that the Israelites had to leave behind when fleeing Egypt. The Egyptians, after all, had reason to trust the Jews, because, according to tradition, the Jews could have stolen everything that was in the Egyptian homes during the 3 days of darkness. The fact that the verse says that the people “found favor” in the eyes of the Egyptians (Exodus 12:36) indicates that the belongings were given to the Israelites of the Egyptians’ own free will. The Egyptians, we see, were only too happy to get rid of the Jews in order to stop the plagues and the death.

But wasn’t there any other way that the Al-mighty could have fulfilled His promise that the Israelites would leave Egypt with great wealth? After all, we learn that after the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the people of Israel collected the belongings of all the drowned Egyptians. In fact, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) points this out in his commentary on the verse in Exodus 15:22, “Vah’yah’sah Moshe et Yisrael,” that Moses called Israel to journey from the Sea of Reeds. Says Rashi, that Moses had to literally force the people to leave, because they were reluctant to forsake the booty of gold and silver from the bodies of the drowned Egyptian soldiers. In fact, says Rashi, the booty collected at the Sea of Reeds was even greater than that which they took out of Egypt.

So why did the Al-mighty specifically want the Israelites to take the possessions of the Egyptians from Egypt?

Perhaps taking the Egyptian’s possessions was a therapeutic exercise for the Hebrew slaves. By forcing the Israelites to boldly confront their former taskmasters, the Al-mighty hoped to rid the people of their “slave mentality.” Previously the Israelites had brazenly bound their sheep before the Egyptians, and informed the Egyptians that within four days they would slaughter these sheep that were considered an Egyptian god. Now the Hebrews had to work up even greater courage to personally confront their former masters, and to take their belongings, which was rightfully theirs.

Oddly enough, this past August 2003, it was reported in the Egyptian press that a Dr. Nabil Hilmi, dean of the faculty of Law of the University of Al-Zaqaziq, had prepared a lawsuit on this very issue on behalf of a group of Egyptian expatriates in Switzerland. The lawsuit that was filed against “all the Jews of the world” demanded recovery of property allegedly stolen during the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, approximately 3300 years ago. According to Hilmi’s calculations, 1125 trillion tons of gold are owed by the Jews, and that doesn’t include interest, which he claims should be calculated for the 3313 years since the exodus.

How significant it is to learn that a similar claim was made about 2300 years ago in the time of Alexander the Great. The Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin, 91a, records that at that time, the Egyptian nations appeared before Alexander demanding from the Jews the return all the Egyptian wealth. The rabbis sent a man by the name of Geviah ben Pesisa, who is described as a short hunchback, with a brilliant mind. Geviah responded with his own claim that the Egyptians still owed the Jews enormous amounts of money as payment for centuries of forced labor. Utilizing Geviah’s argument today, we may similarly counter the claims of the present day Egyptians against the Jewish people.

There is yet another claim against the State of Israel, that is frequently leveled by the Palestinian refugees. The Palestinians insist on indemnification for all the belongings that they left behind, and for all the losses they suffered after being expelled from their homeland [Palestine] in the Israeli War of Independence, in 1948. Again, in our defense, we can learn a lesson from tradition: The fact is, that approximately 850,000 Jewish refugees were expelled from Arab lands at the time of the founding of the State of Israel. They have never been compensated for their losses, and this more than balances any Palestinian claims.

And so we see the fulfillment of the well-known French dictum, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,”–the more things change the more they remain the same.

May you be blessed.