Parashat Bo 5772
Often to understand the current parasha it is necessary to look back in the Torah.
Earlier this week I raised questions about the Jews borrowing objects from the Egyptians. The obvious problem was that the Jews were leaving Egypt and therefore could not possibly return the borrowed objects. Isn’t that a significant ethical lapse?
Covenant with Avraham
Long before the Jewish people came to Egypt, God made a covenant with Avraham. It’s called the Brit Bein HaBetarim. Here are a few of the verses that are relevant for our topic:
Bereshit (Genesis) Chapter 15 (Judaic Press translation)
12 Now the sun was ready to set, and a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and behold, a fright, a great darkness was falling upon him.
13 And He said to Abram, “You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years.
14 And also the nation that they will serve will I judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great possessions.
God is telling Avraham that his descendants will leave Egypt with “great possessions.” What is so important about this detail that over 400 years before the event God is telling Avraham about it?
Fast forward hundreds of years. The Jewish people are enslaved in Egypt. God appears to Moshe at the Burning Bush and appoints him to be the redeemer.
Here is part of the message to Moshe:
Shemot (Exodus) Chapter 3 (Judaic Press translation)
20 And I will stretch forth My hand and smite the Egyptians with all My miracles that I will wreak in their midst, and afterwards he will send you out.
21 And I will put this people’s favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and it will come to pass that when you go, you will not go empty handed.
22 Each woman shall borrow from her neighbor and from the dweller in her house silver and gold objects and garments, and you shall put [them] on your sons and on your daughters, and you shall empty out Egypt.
God is telling Moshe how He is going to fulfill His promise to Avraham. He is going to cause the Egyptians to have a favorable opinion of the Jews. Then the Egyptians will give their valuables to the Jews.
Why is this so important? Can money make up for the years of slavery and oppression?
Killing the Firstborn
Before the final plague in Egypt, God tells Moshe what is about to happen.
Shemot Chapter 11 (Judaic Press translation)
1 The Lord said to Moses, “I will bring one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go from here. When he lets you out, he will completely drive you out of here.
2 Please, speak into the ears of the people, and let them borrow, each man from his friend and each woman from her friend, silver vessels and golden vessels.”
3 So the Lord gave the people favor in Pharaoh’s eyes; also the man Moses was highly esteemed in the eyes of Pharaoh’s servants and in the eyes of the people.
Notice in verse 2 that is seems almost like God is pleading with Moshe. Why would a command from God be preceded by saying “please”? It isn’t the usual way of expressing a divine command.
Finally, we are told that the Jews collected the stuff. After the smiting of the firstborn, the Torah writes:
Shemot Chapter 12 (Judaic Press translation)
33 So the Egyptians took hold of the people to hasten to send them out of the land, for they said, “We are all dead.”
34 The people picked up their dough when it was not yet leavened, their leftovers bound in their garments on their shoulders.
35 And the children of Israel did according to Moses’ order, and they borrowed from the Egyptians silver objects, golden objects, and garments.
36 The Lord gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and they lent them, and they emptied out Egypt.
They did it. The Jews took the Egyptian’s portable precious objects and left. This seemly insignificant detail about the exodus from Egypt has been discussed four times in the Torah.
We saw in Shemot 11:2 that it almost seemed like God was pleading with Moshe. It is the Hebrew word “na” that is translated as “please”.
Here is Rashi’s comment on this phrase (Judaic Press translation):
Please, speak – “na” is only an expression of request. I ask you to warn them about this, so that the righteous man, Abraham, will not say He fulfilled with them “and they will enslave them and oppress them” (Bereshit 15:13), but He did not fulfill with them “afterwards they will go forth with great possessions” (Bereshit 15:14).
Rashi’s intention is to help us understand the text. But he seems to add another difficulty.
Rashi implies that God is only concerned that Avraham might complain. Does that mean that if Avraham does not raise an objection then the Jews don’t have to leave Egypt with wealth? Doesn’t God have an obligation to fulfill his promise to Avraham no matter what?
The Maharal in his commentary on Rashi explains that when the Jews were told to borrow precious items from the Egyptians, it was not a divine command. Rather, it was an action that they should perform for their own personal benefit. The Maharal points out that under the circumstances, the Jews would have been permitted to refuse since a person may waive a benefit.
Borrow versus Request
One of the most troubling aspects of this entire incident is the Jews borrowing the Egyptians objects. We all understand that a borrowed object must be returned. How could God request that the Jews do a deed that raises such obvious moral implications?
Grammar to the Rescue
Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch in his commentary on Shemot 3:22 tells us that a proper understanding of Hebrew grammar solves the whole problem.
The Hebrew word that is causing us a problem is “sha’al” (shin aleph lammed).
This verb is commonly used in the Mishna and in modern Hebrew to mean borrow. According to Rav Hirsch, in Tanach the verb almost always means to demand or to request.
He writes that there two simple rules to tell which meaning is intended.
1. If the verb “sha’al” is followed by “mei’ait” or a prefix “mem”, then the meaning is demand or request. This construction tells you that the relationship between the object and its original owner is completely severed.
2. If the verb “sha’al” is followed by a form of “mei’im”, then the meaning is borrow. This construction tells you that the object is not now with its owner, but the relationship is not severed.
Look at the Hebrew of the verses we quoted above. You will see that each verse is an example of the Rule 1. To say it another way, Rav Hirsch would disagree with the Judaic Press translation.
In fact, The Hirsch Chumash translates “sha’al” as ask in each of the above verses.
A verse where “sha’al” does mean borrow is Shemot 22:13. If you look at the Hebrew in that verse you will see that if follows Rule 2.
Why the Wealth? Three Approaches
It is now time to consider why it was so important for the Jews to leave Egypt with wealth.
The gemara records an incident where descendants of the Egyptians brought a court case against the Jewish people before Alexander the Great (see Sanhedrin 91a).
Here is the Soncino translation of the first few lines of the gemara:
On another occasion the Egyptians came in a lawsuit against the Jews before Alexander of Macedon. They pleaded thus: ‘Is it not written, And the Lord gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians, and they lent them [gold and precious stones, etc.] Then return us the gold and silver which ye took!’
Note that the prosecutors are understanding the verb “sha’al” to mean borrow. The gemara goes on to describe the defense against the charge:
… he went and pleaded against them. ‘Whence do ye adduce your proof?’ asked he. ‘From the Torah,’ they replied. ‘Then I too,’ said he, ‘will bring you proof only from the Torah, for it is written, Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, who dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years. Pay us for the toil of six hundred thousand men whom ye enslaved for four hundred thirty years.’ Then King Alexander said to them, ‘Answer him!’ ‘Give us three days’ time,’ they begged. So he gave them a respite; they sought but found no answer.
Simply stated, the property that the Jews took from Egypt was only compensation for the work done during the years of slavery. Presumably, the Egyptians calculated that the amount taken by the Jews when they left Egypt was not even enough to cover their wages. Otherwise, the Egyptians could have claimed a refund of the excess.
The commentator Chizkuni (see Biographies) adopts a completely different approach.
In his commentary on Shemot 11:2, he claims that what the Jews took from the Egyptians was merely compensation for the houses, fields, and other property that they left in Egypt.
He proves that they had a lot of property from this verse:
Bereshit 47:27 And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt in the land of Goshen, and they acquired property in it, and they were prolific and multiplied greatly.
Let’s look at a suggestion by a modern commentator, Rav Zalman Sorotzkin (see Biographies).
He writes on Bereshit 15:14 that certainly the Jews left Egypt with lots of gold and silver.
But, he adds, how could that have been adequate compensation for the slavery and the afflictions that they suffered in Egypt? How could Avraham have taken comfort in the fact that though his offspring would suffer overwhelming affliction but they would get some gold and silver?
Rabbi Sorotzkin suggests that God is telling Avraham a deeper truth. To become pure, gold and silver are refined in a furnace. So too, the suffering of the Jewish People in Egypt will refine them. Through this refining they will acquire, as a nation, the character traits that they need. Through this experience they will become a people worthy of continuing Avraham’s mission in the world and receiving the Torah.
To summarize: money is good, but good character is better.
Which approach do you like best on this passage? Please share your ideas and suggested answers in the comments.
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