“Finding Favor in the Eyes of the Egyptians”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bo, the ninth plague, darkness, strikes. In response to the plague, Pharaoh tells Moses that all the Hebrew people may go worship their G-d, as long as they leave their flocks behind. Moses insists that the livestock go with them, and that not a single animal be left in Egypt. G-d hardens Pharaoh’s heart, he chases Moses away, warning Moses never to see him again, upon penalty of death.

G-d tells Moses that there is one more plague that He intends to visit upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and then He will send the people free. That plague is to be the death of the firstborn.

In preparation for the final plague, G-d tells Moses to speak to the People of Israel and instruct them to request of their Egyptian neighbors vessels of silver and gold. Scripture then describes the reaction of the Egyptians (Exodus 11:3): “Va’yee’tayn Hashem et chayn ha’ahm b’ay’nay Mitzrayim,” and G-d made the people find favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and as a result, Moses was greatly admired in the land of Egypt, in the eyes of the servants of Pharaoh and in the eyes of the people.

The Ibn Ezra (R’ Abraham Ibn Ezra, 1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) suggests that it was this “new status” of the Jews in the eyes of the Egyptians that accounts for the Egyptians’ willingness to give their valuables to them. Other commentators, however, say that the status of the Jews is unrelated to the gifts that they received.

Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, 1800-1865 Italian historian, theologian and biblical exegete) in his commentary on the Bible, explains at length that the sudden favorable attitude of the Egyptians was a fulfillment of G-d’s previous promise that the people would find favor in the eyes of the Egyptians (Exodus 3:21). Shadal explains that when the Egyptians saw the great plagues and the miracles that were visited upon them on behalf of Israel, they began to recognize the greatness of Israel and their mighty G-d who saves them. They began to appreciate the terrible suffering that the Hebrews had endured in slavery, and, for the first time, recognized the Jews’ humanity, who were, after all, flesh and blood, like themselves.

Shadal further argues, that when people are absorbed by their own success, they look down upon the lower classes as if they hardly matter. Consequently, they see nothing wrong with causing the common people pain and suffering. But when the downtrodden suddenly rise up, even a little, from the depths of their despair, the upper classes begin to acknowledge them, have compassion on them, and, at times, even develop an affection for them. Says Shadal, that explains why Mrs. Potiphar started casting her eyes upon the lowly Hebrew slave, Joseph, after she noticed his unusual success.

The Ramban, Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) further explains this phenomenon noting that the Egyptian population bore no grudge against the Hebrews. In fact, they eventually recognized that the Jews were righteous, and that the Egyptians themselves were wicked. This response is rather astounding since one would have expected the Egyptians to hate the Jews, blaming the Jews for the terrible suffering brought upon them through the plagues. But G-d’s intervention resulted in only positive feelings.

The sudden reversal of fortune underscores how tenacious the inexorable cycle of history and life can be. We had previously noted that in a single generation the Jews of Egypt were turned into slaves a mere few years after they had been the most admired people in Egypt. Suddenly, the hated slaves are transformed into the most favored people in Egypt. Not only do the Egyptians bear no grudge against them, they willingly give them gifts of their own possessions.

The Netivot Sholom (1911-2000, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, Slonimer Rebbe, known for his insightful commentaries on the Bible) cites the Zohar (part 2:184) which states that light can only emerge from absolute darkness. This pattern was set in the time of creation, as Scripture states: “And it was evening and it was morning.” It is this dialectic that accounts for the fact that a child is born selfish, and only later learns to become a giving human being. Abraham was told at the time of the Covenant Between the Pieces that his people would be exiled, enslaved for 400 years, and persecuted, and then would leave with great wealth. A similar theme is found in the words of the Psalmist (34:15), “Soor may’rah v’ah’say tov,” first, depart from evil, then you can do good. In fact, the more difficult it is to tear oneself from evil, the greater is the ensuing good. This is very often the conclusion reached by psychologists and personality experts who maintain that only when those suffering from drug addictions or alcoholism hit bottom, are they ready for rehabilitation.

That is why, says the Netivot Sholom, the redemption of Egypt took place precisely at midnight. At midnight, there is no light from either the previous sunset or from the coming morning sunrise. It is totally dark at midnight.

In order for the ancient Hebrews to be fully redeemed, it wasn’t enough for them to depart from the darkness of Egypt, they had to do something positive, something proactive. That is why the Al-mighty gave them the first mitzvah of (Exodus 12:2): “Ka’daysh lee kol b’chor,” sanctify for me all the firstborn. The firstborn children and fruit represent G-d’s greatest gifts, a person’s most precious possessions. In order to make certain that they don’t become objects of worship and are recognized as Divine gifts and favors, they need to be sanctified. It is when property, time and human life is sanctified that we really bring light into the world, chasing away the menacing darkness.

When that happens, we have truly found favor in G-d’s eyes.

May you be blessed.