“‘Is This What You Call Borrowing?’–Revisited”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In a previous analysis of parashat Bo (5768-2008), we presented a number of responses to the question of how the Israelites were permitted to “borrow” utensils of gold and silver from their Egyptian neighbors, emptying out Egypt. In this week’s analysis, I would like to present two additional significant responses to that question.

To revisit the issue: In Exodus 11:2, immediately prior to the exodus from Egypt, the Al-mighty advises Moses to speak to the Children of Israel and to tell them, “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 assures the nation that He will grant the Hebrew people favor in the eyes of Egypt, and that Moses will become much admired throughout all the land.

In Exodus 12:35, Scripture confirms that when Pharaoh chases the Jews out of Egypt, the Children of Israel heed Moses’ instructions–requesting from their Egyptian neighbors vessels of silver and gold, as well as garments. G-d indeed grants the Hebrews favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, who accede to the peoples’ requests. In fact, the Egyptians are so compliant, that Exodus 12:36 reports: “Vah’y’natz’loo et Mitzrayim,” they [the Hebrews] thoroughly emptied Egypt.

In the analysis of parashat Bo 5768-2008 we also noted that part of the promise that G-d had made to Abraham in Genesis 15 at the Covenant Between the Pieces, included leaving the exile with great wealth. In order to reconcile the taking of Egyptian property, some of the commentators redefined the word, “va’Yash’ee’loo,” not to mean borrow, but to specifically mean to ask, concluding, that when the Hebrews “asked” for the vessels, the Egyptians were well aware of the fact that their property would likely not be returned. Other commentators state that it was, in essence, an exchange of property for the vast amounts of real estate and valuables that the Hebrews left behind in Egypt. Still others explain that the vessels of gold and silver were compensation for the 110 years of servitude that the Israelites endured in Egypt.

After the publication of my original analysis, the great-granddaughter of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry), Mrs. Meta Bechhofer brought to my attention the comments of Rabbi Hirsch on this issue. Rabbi Hirsh presents a radically different take on the entire matter. Rabbi Hirsch translates the verse in Exodus 12:36, “V’Hashem nah’tahn et chayn ha’ahm b’ay’nay Mitzrayim, va’yash’ee’loom, vah’y’nahtz’loo et Mitzrayim,” to mean that G-d made the Egyptians see that the Hebrews were worthy of favor [to be given their precious items], and they anticipated their request and emptied Egypt out. Rabbi Hirsch boldly suggests, that “Vah’y’nahtz’loo et Mitzrayim,” and they emptied Egypt, refers to the Egyptians, and not the Hebrews. It was, in effect, the Egyptians who stripped Egypt of its wealth. Rabbi Hirsch explains the Egyptians’ actions by saying that “the honesty and magnanimity which the Jews displayed during the three days of darkness, so raised the opinion of the Egyptians toward Israel, that they pressed their possessions upon them [upon the Israelites, even] before they asked, and stripped themselves of their treasures.” Clearly, according to Rabbi Hirsch, there was no unethical behavior on the part of the Hebrews.

Citing the Midrash Chemdat Hayamim, the great Nehama Leibowitz (famed Bible teacher, 1905-1997) offers an additional fascinating explanation of the moral issue. The Midrash says:

“Every woman shall ask her neighbor,” (Exodus 11:2). Why was this instruction given to the women?
[When] Pharaoh decreed that “every newborn male be thrown into the Nile,” the daughters of Israel bribed Pharaoh’s officials and the Egyptians with their jewelry, to look the other way. The result was that they [the Egyptians] drowned some of them [the Hebrew children] and allowed others to survive. This is why the text does not record that “they threw every child [into the river].” The Holy One Blessed Be He therefore gave instructions that “every woman shall ask her neighbor” back for what had been taken in bribes. No deception was involved, only restitution.

I am moved by these two intriguing responses to the commentators’ questions, particularly because they reflect upon issues that resonate strongly with us today. Rabbi Hirsch’s suggestion, that the Egyptian people were so impressed by the honesty of the Jewish people that they willingly gave away their valuables to the Hebrews, very much reflects an urgent need of the Jewish community today. We desperately need Jews who will be “m’kadaysh shaym shamayim,” sanctify the name of the Holy One, who will so impress our neighbors (who are not always very well disposed toward us), that our neighbors will greatly admire and respect the Jewish people, due to the Jews’ extraordinary moral character and behavior.

The suggestion of the Midrash Chemdat Hayamim that the Hebrew women were, in effect, being reimbursed for the bribes that they had given to save their children, sadly reflects much of recent Jewish history. Unfortunately, Jewish mothers during the Holocaust and more recently during the terror campaigns of Israel’s enemies, have placed many Jewish mothers in unspeakable moral situations. Although it has been true for much of Jewish history, in the last 100 years, Jewish mothers, again and again, have been forced not only to pay bribes, but even, at times, have been required to choose between their own beloved children, or between their own lives and their children’s lives. To their immense credit, Jewish mothers never failed their children or their extended families. Like Hannah of old, they were willing to give up everything, rather than compromise their love for G-d or their love for their families.

So when we read these verses this week, let us not think that these biblical narratives are simply tales from days of yore. What we read in this week’s parasha is, sadly, very much an authentic saga of contemporary Jewish experiences.

Serving as a moral paradigm and/or being prepared to defend our values with our lives, is something that Jews must be aware of every single day.

May you be blessed.