Weekly Torah Portion

Ethics in the Parsha – Parshat Bo

“Please speak to the people and let every man ask of his friend, and every woman of her friend jewels of silver and gold”

(Shemot 11:2)

“And the children of Israel did as Moshe said, and they asked from Egypt jewels of gold and silver, and Hashem gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and they despoiled Egypt.” (Shemot 12:35-36)

One thousand years after these events occurred, the Egyptians sent a delegation to Alexander the Great of Macedonia, who at that time was residing in the Middle East. They complained that the Jews had never returned the valuable items which they had borrowed from Egypt, and demanded payment for them. The Egyptians touched upon a puzzling point in these Pesukim- the use of the term “borrowing” is misleading, as well as Moshe Rabbeinu's assertion that “we will travel for three days in the desert” when this was clearly not the case. Moreover, the expression “despoliation” used by the Torah implies more than just borrowing. (although Rashi and Onkelos translate this term as “emptying”). It would seem that the Jews were exploiting their freedom to enrich themselves at the expense of their erstwhile captors.

Chazal find an allusion to this event at the covenant of Abraham, when he is informed that his children will leave Egypt after their exile- “with great wealth”. Moshe Rabbeinu was also told at the Burning Bush that the Israelites would not be leaving empty-handed.  However this does not explain the methods employed to obtain this wealth, which seem to involve an elaborate deception. Are their any ethical grounds for this behavior, or was the Exodus based on dishonesty?

 Ohr Hachayim (12:35) concedes that there was an element of deception here, and therefore the Torah says that the Jews “did as Moshe said”' since as a recognized prophet Moshe is allowed to declare a one-time breach of a Torah precept הוראת שעה)). This would also explain the word “please” prefaced to Moshes' request to borrow jewels, since the Jews would obviously be reluctant to use subterfuge in obtaining these items. However this does not answer why Hashem wanted such an act of dishonesty at this hour of redemption.

 The 13th-century commentator Rabbeinu Bechaye quotes Rabbeinu Chananel who addresses this question:

“G-d would not command people to deceive…but since the labor they had done was priceless, and there was no limit to the wages owed for all the work that had been done. According to the law of the Torah, a slave who has served his master for seven years is entitled to an award…all the more so when they had worked for 210 years.”

Rabbeinu Chananel sees justification in the despoliation of Egypt as a kind of “affirmative action” repayment for all the unpaid years of the enslavement. The Egyptians never paid the Israelites for their toils, and certainly had no intention of granting them a present on their departure. This miserliness justifies the demand to “borrow” items from the Egyptians, which would be a token sum of what was truly owed to the Jewish nation. This was the way Geviha ben Pesisa (the Jew delegated to answer the Egyptian claims) represented the “borrowing” to Alexander the Great, citing the tremendous debt owed by the Egyptian for all the years of slavery. The Egyptian petition was duly removed. (see Sanhedrin 91a, Bereshit Rabba 61)

Other commentators, notably Rabbi Saadia Gaon and Rashbam, understood that the simple meaning of the term “Sheela” does not mean borrowing in this context, and can also connote a gift which will not be returned (see for example Tehillim 2:8   שאל ממני ואתנה,”Ask from me and I will give” and Tehillim 21:5), and therefore there was no vestige of deception, as both parties were fully aware of the nature of these transactions.

We can also suggest a new interpretation of the above verses. When the plagues disrupted life in Egypt there was a huge social upheaval. Instead of relating to the Jews as lowly slaves, the Egyptians started to relate to them as equals, and many wished to join the Jewish nation and enjoy their rosy future in “the land of milk and honey”. As the Jews' status rose, the Egyptians openly sought to flatter them and fraternize with them, since they sensed that fortune favored the Jewish nation. This dramatic change is hinted at in the text, which states “they shall ask each man of his friend” (Reehu”). We can be assured that before this the Egyptians were no friends to the Jews. From the next verse it would appear that the Egyptians themselves wanted to ply the Jews with presents, as they wished to become closer to the Jewish nation. The jewels given were actually presents, but the Torah uses the expression “sheelah” (literally: asking) because the original initiative came from the Israelites based on their divine command. Since they were about to leave Egypt -Pharaoh's courtiers were begging them to go- it was obvious that these mementos were parting gifts, and both sides understood them as such. (See Kli Yakar 3:22 who takes this view).

Despite this, the Midrash comments that for some Jews these jewels were “burdensome”. Rav Aryeh Lipkin (cousin of R. Yisrael Salanter) suggested that many honest Jews had taken the “borrowing” literally, and were trying to find ways to return the items when the Egyptians started pursuing them. As we know in Halacha, a Rodeiph (pursuer) has no rights even to his own property, and thus the property became theirs lawfully. 

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