When the Israelites left Egypt, Torah tells us that they “borrowed” gold, silver, and other valuables from the Egyptians who freely gave. Why were these valuables offered so freely to the departing Israelite slaves?
In last week’s text we learned of the first six plagues which God placed upon the Egyptians. Now the seventh plague – locusts – is about to be delivered. “Then the Eternal One said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your children and of your children and of your children’s children how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them – in order that you may know that I am the Eternal.’” (Ex. 10:1-3) And so we see that the plagues had two purposes: First to free the Israelites… and second, to demonstrate the power of God to the Israelites… and the Egyptians.
The first plagues showed that the power of the Eternal was greater than the all other gods. In these last three plagues God is directly punishing the Egyptians … With locusts, the source of food is destroyed … With darkness, the security and well-being of the Egyptians is removed … And, with the final plague – Death of the first born – death touches every household… Just as the Israelites cried out under the evils of slavery, the Egyptians now cry out after their awesome loss.
The Israelites were now ready to leave Egypt.
But before their departure they were commanded by God “to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.” (Ex. 11:2) Then upon leaving the country we see that “The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing. And the Eternal had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians.” (Ex. 12:35-6)
The act of “borrowing” these items of value from the Egyptians raises many questions. First… the word “borrow” is questioned. The Hebrew word for borrow is sha’al. It can also mean “ask for” or “demand.” One wonders if these items were freely given to the Israelites? If so, why were the Egyptians so willing? …. Or, is Torah giving approval to the robbery of these items from the Egyptians?
“Among all Jewish interpreters of this significant Torah story, none suggests that the Israelites deliberately set out to rob the Egyptians. Nearly all agreed that the Egyptians willingly presented their gold and silver to the departing Israelites.” (Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, vol. 2, p. 27)
Josephus, who lived in Jerusalem during the first century, CE, agrees. He sees the Egyptians offering these gifts as a sign of friendship and neighborly good will upon their departure.
Rashbam, grandson of Rashi, also agrees. He states that the Israelites “merely asked for it, and the Egyptians responded by giving them gifts … there was no force, no persuasion.”
Or maybe, the people of Egypt, after living through the ten plagues, felt they went through enough. When asked by the Israelites for the “gifts,” they gave freely out of a fear of either the Israelites themselves, or the God they worshiped… In either case, they were afraid of what might happen if they didn’t give as asked.
Nahum Sarna, a Twentieth Century Biblical scholar, sees these “gifts” as spoils of a Jewish victory over the Egyptians. In reality, they were payment for the years of unrewarded slavery. Taking these gifts restored a level of pride in the Israelite people and proved that the Israelites were equal to their past masters. Sarna writes, “They escaped from Egypt with their dignity intact. However, in later years the Egyptian people claimed they were “robbed” and demanded repayment. The response to this argument asserted that the Hebrews lived in Egypt for four hundred and thirty years and deserved payment for their years of slavery. (Sanhedrin 91a)
This concept of reparations was brought forward into the news in 1951 when the government of Israel asked for “reparations” from Germany for the six million Jews killed by the Nazis and the Jewish-owned businesses and property that were taken. Careers were ruined; hundreds of thousands were left sick, homeless, and orphaned. The state of Israel asked $1.5 billion from Germany as “material reparations.” The money was to be used “to secure compensation indemnification” for the heirs of the victims and rehabilitation of the survivors. The amount of $1.5 billion was chosen because it was “the minimal sum required for the absorption and rehabilitation of half a million immigrants from the countries subjected to the Nazi regime. In 1952 the Israeli Knesset voted to accept these reparation payments which were spread over a twelve year period. (David Ben-Gurion, Israel, a Personal History, p. 399-400)
However, when comparing the “gifts” the Israelites received from the Egyptians to the reparations of WWII, several questions arise. First, can these two events be compared? Should payments be accepted when receipt absolves the party causing the injury? And, lastly, can a price be placed on the injury and damage done?
After considering the above questions, it must be noted that these payments help bring the parties involved to a conclusion and a beginning a way in which forgiveness can take place. The payments also allow the injured parties to move into the future as a proud and independent people. (Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, p. 29)