“Is This What You Call Borrowing?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Bo we learn that after the ninth plague, the plague of darkness, Pharaoh has reached his wit’s end, and agrees to release the Jews from Egypt. Pharaoh, in desperation, summons Moses and says to him (Exodus 10:24): “L’choo iv’doo et Ha-shem,” Go worship G-d. This time your children may even go with you, only your flocks and cattle shall be left behind.

Moses rejects Pharaoh’s limited terms and brazenly responds to Pharaoh: “When we go, we will go with our livestock as well. In fact, you yourself will send sacrifices along with us! Not one hoof will be left behind!” Reacting in anger, Pharaoh chases Moses out, warning him never to see his face again, “for on the day that you see my face, you will surely die.”

G-d then tells Moses that there is one more plague that He must visit upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt, and then Pharaoh will let His people go. G-d advises Moses to speak to the Children of Israel and tell them (Exodus 11:2): “V’yish’ah’loo eesh may’ayt ray’ay’hoo, v’eesha may’ayt r’ooh’tah, k’lay-chesef ooch’lay za’hav,” Let each man request of his fellow, and each woman of her fellow, silver vessels and gold vessels. G-d states that a remarkable attitudinal transformation will take place among the Egyptians, that He will grant the Hebrew people favor in the eyes of Egypt, and that Moses, as well, will be admired throughout all the land of Egypt by the servants of Pharaoh and all the people of Egypt.

Scripture confirms that when Pharaoh eventually chases the Jews out (Exodus 12:35), the Children of Israel heed Moses’ instructions, requesting from the Egyptians vessels of silver and gold, as well as garments, and that G-d indeed gives the Hebrew people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, who grant the people’s requests. The Egyptians were so compliant that (Exodus 12:36): “Vah’y’natz’loo et Mitzrayim,” they [the Hebrews] thoroughly empty Egypt. What a wonderful conclusion to the people’s bitter “sojourn” in Egypt!

This wonderful conclusion, however, raises serious moral questions in its wake. Can a Torah that declares over and over: “Lo tig’nov (Exodus 20:15), Lo tig’no’voo, v’lo t’chah’chah’shoo, v’lo t’shak’roo eesh bah’ah’meeto (Leviticus 19:11),” Thou shall not steal. Thou shall not rob, thou shall not deny falsely, thou shall not lie to one another–can this same Torah countenance two million people borrowing gold and silver vessels and garments from the Egyptians, never intending to return them, resulting in the emptying of Egypt?! Whatever became of divine ethics?

We know that in Genesis 15, G-d appears to Abram and promises him, in what is commonly known as the “Brit bein Hab’tah’rim,” the Covenant Between the Pieces (Genesis 15:13-14), that he [Abram] should surely know that his children will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, that they will be enslaved and persecuted for 400 years. G-d also states that He will judge the nation that will enslave His people, and concludes with the promise, “V’ah’cha’ray chen, yay’tz’oo bir’choosh gah’dol,” and afterwards they shall leave with great wealth.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) notes in Exodus 11:2, that when G-d instructs Moses to speak to the Jewish people and request of their neighbors silver and gold vessels, the verse employs the uncommon expression, “Dah’ber nah b’az’ney ha’am,” Please speak in the ears of the people, as if G-d is pleading with Moses to make this announcement. Why is the fulfillment of this request so critical? Says Rashi: Because unless the Hebrews did so, the soul of Abraham would have a grievance against G-d. Abraham would say that when it comes to carrying out His prediction that the people would be oppressed and enslaved, G-d was truthful. But His promise that the Jews would leave their captivity with great wealth remains unfulfilled! Clearly then, the emptying out Egypt was a necessary fulfillment of the Al-mighty’s original commitment.

But couldn’t G-d have delivered the wealth to the people in some other manner that would not compromise the probity of the Jewish people? The Seforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) suggests that this was G-d’s way of calming His people, telling them that they need not be afraid to take the Egyptians belongings, and assuring them that the Egyptians would not chase after them to regain their property. Furthermore, perhaps this was another step in the maturation process of the Jewish people that was necessary in their pursuit of freedom. A similar “exercise” was conducted when the Hebrews were instructed to take the sheep on the tenth day of Nissan and to guard the animals for four days before slaughtering them on the night of the 14th (Exodus 12:3-6). In this manner the slaves were to show their lack of fear of their Egyptian masters–-affirming that they were no longer intimidated by them and were even prepared to kill the Egyptians’ “gods.” Perhaps the taking of the Egyptian belongings was necessary in order for the Hebrews to prove that they were now in charge, no longer fearful of their previous taskmasters.

Some of the rabbis even suggest that this may also be G-d’s way of returning the downtrodden and beaten slaves to reality. The soon-to-be released slaves need to know that normal living in the future requires financial and material resources. It is not uncommon for long-suffering prisoners who are told that they will soon be released and will be given monetary compensation for their travails to respond by crying out: “Just get us out of here. Forget the money!” To make certain that the Israelites would be properly prepared for the reality of physical freedom, the Al-mighty allowed them to obtain the resources necessary for normalizing their future.

Invoking a rather clever interpretation, the rabbis of the Talmud note that removing the valuables from Egypt allowed Moses to plead for mercy on behalf of the people of Israel by placing much of the onus for the Golden Calf on G-d (Talmud, Brachot 32). Moses argued, that by compelling the Hebrews to take the silver and gold of Egypt, the Al-mighty Himself had placed a stumbling block before the people, virtually leading them to make a Golden Calf!

A number of commentators are not at all comfortable with the suggestion that the Jews in any manner stole from the Egyptians. They consequently argue that the word “yash’eeh’loo,” does not mean to borrow. It simply means to request, from the word “lish’ohl,” to ask for. The Hebrews, therefore, ask their neighbors for their vessels, who are well aware of the fact that their property will not be returned.

Other commentators justify the people’s actions by pointing out that in reality, what took place in Egypt was not looting, but rather an exchange of property. After all, the Hebrews left vast amounts of property and valuables behind in Egypt. The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Yehudah Leibish, 1809-1879, leading Torah scholar in Germany, Romania and Russia) states that before the Hebrews leave the land, they will ask their neighbors, who will soon inhabit the Hebrews’ empty homes, to take their homes and their furnishings in return for the gold and silver that is easier to carry. The word “v’neetz’ahl’tem et Mitzrayim” says the Malbim, does not mean that you will empty out Egypt, but rather that you will “save” the Hebrews from losing all their valuables that they were forced to leave behind.

The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 91a, records a series of fascinating trials that took place in the court of Alexander of Macedonia between the nations of the world and the people of Israel. The Talmud states that in one instance, the Egyptians, citing the Torah (Exodus 12:36), demanded that the contemporary Jews, the descendants of the “thieves,” return to them the gold and silver that was stolen from Egypt.

The Talmud records that a certain Gebiah ben Pesisa asked the sages for permission to represent the Jews, and plead their case before Alexander. “Should they defeat me,” argued Gebiah, “You can always say that you have only defeated an ignorant man among us. But, if I defeat them, you will be able to say that the Law of Moses has defeated them.” Upon being granted permission, Gebiah asked the Egyptians, “Where do you get proof of your claim?” They responded: “From the Torah.” “Then I too,” said Gebiah, “will bring you proof only from the Torah, for it is written ‘now the sojournings of the children of Israel who dwelt in Egypt was 430 years’ (Exodus 12:40). Pay us for the toil of 600,000 men who were enslaved for 430 years.” Impressed by Gebiah’s argument, King Alexander ordered the Egyptians to respond. “Give us three days,” they begged. He gave them the time, but they could find no answer. Instead they fled, leaving behind their own sown fields and planted vineyards. The Talmud notes that that year happened to be a sabbatical year. The Jews, unable to plant, had been concerned that they would have no food to eat. As a result of the trial, they benefitted from the produce that the Egyptians had left behind.

What is particularly striking about this whole matter is how intensely the rabbis struggle over this particular issue. Clearly, the operating principle of antiquity was “All’s fair in love and war.” In ancient times, people gave little thought to question the moral right of taking the property of those who had enslaved them and had thrown their male children into the seas. Similar attitudes are not uncommon even in contemporary times. Nevertheless, the issue gnawed at the Jewish conscience, and rabbis, for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, have struggled with the correctness of the action. It stands as a brilliant testimony to the conscience of the people who aspire to be the conscience of humanity.

May you be blessed.