The Book of Exodus forms a coherent unit, moving ever upward, from slavery to freedom, from biography to history, from legal and political levels of meaning to esthetic and ethical planes, from the intercession of the man Moses to the abiding involvement of God. (Hallo in Plaut, 377)
This parasha begins with a reiteration of God's challenge to Pharaoh to change his behavior while at the same time making it more difficult for him to do so, and it concludes with the freeing of the Israelites from bondage. God instructs Moses to tell the people to sacrifice a lamb and put its blood on their doorposts. The blood from the lamb will be a sign so that God will pass over them when the final plague comes to strike the Egyptians. After the slaying of the first born, Pharaoh urges the Hebrew slaves to leave. The six hundred thousand men, their wives, their daughters and the elderly leave Egypt after four hundred and thirty yearsof subjugation. God tells Moses and Aaron that the people must remember how God freed them from bondage enjoined them to celebrate the festival that today we call Pesach, or Passover.
Aliyah -Sixth aliyah: Exodus 12:29-12:51
When Pharaoh tells Moses and Aaron to take their people and leave, he allowed them to take their flocks and herds and to bring a blessing upon him. They left in a hurry, before their dough had leavened. Also,
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 (12:35-36).
The scene depicted in our selection has long troubled commentators. What motivated the Egyptians and the Israelites behaviors, respectively? Is this a scene of intimidation, restitution, or reconciliation? How is God influencing the players, and why? One possibility is that the Egyptians feared for their lives. They were anxious to have the Israelites and the scourge of the plagues leave Egypt. Either the slaves, completely unprepared for a journey, took whatever they thought they would need, or they took revenge. Could handfuls of gold and silver have been considered compensation to the Israelites for hundreds of years of servitude?
Rashiexplains that when the Israelites asked for one of something, they were given two and told, "Go!" Was this generosity the result of guilt, fear, justice, or something else entirely? Rashbam explains that God made the Egyptians feel favorably toward the Israelites and that, actually, the Israelites did not borrow or take but they requested (from the Hebrew for "asked") the valuable items from the Egyptians. Each Israelite woman borrowed from her neighbor objects of silver and gold and clothing. Accordingly, the Egyptians were merely being compliant, not committed partners in the Israelites release.
Some commentators paint a picture in which the Egyptians felt so kindly towards their freed slaves that they literally gave them the shirts off their backs. Mechilta of R. Ishmael tells us that the Egyptians gave before the Israelites could ask. Josephus depicts the Egyptians as encouraging the slaves to hurry out and reach freedom. They honored the Israelites with their gifts and then wept after their departure, filled with remorse for their treatment of Moses and his people. These suggest that the God's methods had succeeded to change the character of the Egyptians, not only their behavior.
Nehama Leibowitz examines the thinking of modern commentators to find a rationale for these verses. She cites Benno Jacob, a particularly insightful exegete. If things had gone differently, it might have been that the Israelites hated Egyptians. The very word "Egyptian" might have brought fear and bitter resentment into the hearts of the Israelites. Instead, the Torah tells us that the Egyptians and the Israelites parted as friends. Perhaps the Egyptians did not volunteer to donate their valuables, but they gave them, nonetheless, so that looking back upon that time period would not create strife between two peoples destined to live in countries side-by-side (New Studies in Shemot, 190).
God had disposed the Egyptians favorably Leibowitz points out what has most confounded commentators of Torah about these verses. The Israelites did not rise up against their oppressors and, in a fit of anger and retaliation, take the valuables on their own initiative (New Studies in Shemot, 184). Rather, God instructed them to do so. As a Divine directive, there may have been a bigger purpose than we can see at first reading.
Looking ahead into the upcoming parshiyot, we know that the Israelites used gold and silver to build the Golden Calf. Those who contributed to this endeavor were punished. Others used their valuables to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle). In the verse immediately preceding our selection, Pharaoh tells Moses and Aaron to take the people and go. His last words to them are, "And may you bring a blessing on me also!" (12:32) Life hands us choices. One day we may be slaves, and the next those who enslaved us can be handing us valuables and setting us free. Whether our lives are blessed or not is determined by what we make of those choices. Do we participate in the building of the Golden Calf or the Mishkan? Will we forgive or avenge? Will we take what we are given and walk to freedom, or will we feel cheated and remain enslaved? This is our perpetual choice, and Moses is still our teacher.
- Have you ever treated someone poorly and tried to make up for it? How did you feel afterwards? Did the kind thing make up for the way you had initially treated the person?
- Have you ever lent something you value to someone? Why? How would you have felt if you knew you would never get this item back?
- In the Torah this week we read of three types of items given to the Israelites: silver, gold, and clothing. Why was clothing placed on the same level as silver and gold? Rashi points out that on a long journey, clothing would have even greater value than silver and gold. What are the things that you value, that are worth as much to you as silver or gold?
For Further Learning
It has been said that the Egyptians of Pharaoh's time wove linen by hand that was so fine that, even today, we cannot use our hands or our machinery in a way that can come close to their skill. Linen was, in Ancient Egypt, currency for barter and so was highly valued (Barber, Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years, 200). This is would be appropriate that the loss of clothing compared to the loss silver and gold. "In Egyptian paintings slaves are often depicted wearing only a short skirt and naked form the waist up" (Alter, The Five Books of Moses, 382). If, as some commentators seem to suggest, these items were given as reparations for servitude, we might consider what contemporary society has given as reparations for servitude. What has Germany given to Israel or what have we done for African-Americans or to Native-Americans to compensate them for their time in slavery or loss of freedom? What are appropriate reparations, and do they somehow "make up" for any of the loss of dignity or life?