SLAVERY FOR PROFIT?

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

 

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

PARASHAT BO

 

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In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner

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SLAVERY FOR PROFIT?

 

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

 

 

A.        INTRODUCTION

 

Our parasha discusses Bnei Yisrael's final preparations for leaving Egypt and their slavery behind.  Among the various particulars, we note that one detail repeats itself three times in Sefer Shemot.  In Hashem's original communication to Moshe (chapter 3), He states:

 

21 And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. And it shall come to pass that when you go, you shall not go empty;

22 But every woman shall ask of her neighbor and of her that sojourns in her house jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment; and you shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters, and you shall despoil the Egyptians.

 

Hashem repeats the command that the Jewish people ask their Egyptian neighbors for their jewelry and clothing at the beginning of Chapter 11 when informing Moshe of the impending plague of the firstborn and the eventual release of Bnei Yisrael:

 

1 And Hashem said unto Moshe: "Yet one plague more will I bring upon Pharaoh, and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go hence; when he shall let you go, he shall surely thrust you out hence altogether.

2 Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his neighbor, and every woman of her neighbor, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold."

3 And Hashem gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover, the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh's servants, and in the sight of the people.

 

The Torah impresses upon the reader the importance of the fact that the Jewish People left Egypt with great riches by repeating the implementation of the command immediately after the devastation of the final plague in Chapter 12:

 

35 And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moshe; and they asked of the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment.

36 And Hashem gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And they despoiled the Egyptians.

 

The thrice-fold repetition of the act of taking wealth from the Egyptians should cause the reader to wonder – why was this necessary?  Clearly, if even the Torah wanted to mention that the Jews were showered with gifts from their neighbors, it could have done so in passing, without placing it in the textual spotlight.  In addition, the ethical question of borrowing items from others without any intention of returning them bothered many commentators.  What does this story add to our understanding of the Exodus from Egypt?

 

B.        THE PURPOSE – A GIFT, AN EXCHANGE, OR COMPENSATION

 

The first question that commentators dealt with in this episode is whether the Jewish people were asking for the goods as borrowed items or as absolute gifts.  Most early commentators cite sources that demonstrate that the root word SH.A.L. may refer to a request for an outright gift, and does not only mean borrowing (as it is usually translated). Rabbeinu Sa'adia Ga'on mentions that Hannah gave her son the name Shemuel because "He shall be handed over to Hashem" (1 Shemuel 1:28), and in this case the child was dedicated permanently to Hashem.  The Rabbeinu Bachye quotes a similar idea from Rabbeinu Channanel, but he adds the moral rationale for the interpretation:

 

Heaven forbid that Hashem should have permitted them to deceive their fellow man by borrowing silver and gold articles with no intention of returning them.  Rather, "let them ask" (ve-SHA'ALA) refers to their requesting these items as gifts.  Gideon says, "I would make a request – SH'EILA – of you, that you would give every man the earning of his spoils," and Batsheva addresses Shlomo Ha-Melekh with "I have one small request - SH'EILA – to ask you… let Adoniyahu your brother have Avishug Ha-Shunamite as a wife."  Therefore, we see that gifts can be referred to by the word SH'EILA.

 

Other commentators do not view the transaction as a simple request for gifts, but as one of mutual exchange.  In leaving Egypt, the Jewish people were forced to abandon properties, fields, vineyards, and many items too heavy to carry.  This approach, first mentioned by the Chizkuni, appears in its most developed form in the commentary of the Malbim, first in chapter 3 when Hashem first appeared to Moshe, and again during the implementation of the command:

 

Bnei Yisrael possessed fields and vineyards, homes, and furniture.  What would they do when leaving the country, since the Egyptians would plunder their homes and possessions, leaving them empty handed?  Therefore, Hashem informed them that they would not leave Egypt destitute. (Commentary to 3:21)

 

As they were leaving, they asked their neighbors and boarders to take their homes and property in exchange for silver and gold articles of equal value, which would be more portable.  In doing so, they fulfilled the verse, "And you will save (your property from) the Egyptians."  The word "save" means that the Jewish People leaving Egypt would be able to save their property in this way, and in the verse, "And G-d saved the flock of your father" (Bereishit 31:9).  (Commentary to 12:35)

 

The acquisition of Egyptian gold and silver was therefore simply a mutual exchange of possessions, and no ethical questions arise.

 

However, the Talmud suggests a third approach to the request to take gold and silver from the Egyptians.  According to the midrash, the Egyptians took the Jewish People to court in the time of Alexander the Great and sued them for the gold and silver that they "borrowed" from them during the Exodus and never returned.  An outsider named Gaviah ben Pasisa volunteered to serve as the defense attorney for the Jewish People.  He responded in front of the Greek monarch, "From where do you bring proof that we took the money?"  They responded, "From the Torah."  He countered, "Then I will bring proof from the Torah, where it states that the Jewish people dwelled in Egypt for 430 years.  Please give us the wages of 600,000 workers for that time period, and we shall return the gold which we took."  The account (in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 91b) concludes with the Egyptians requesting a three-day recess, and not returning to the court thereafter. 

 

What the Talmud suggests is a third justification for the taking of the Egyptian wealth – that it represents unpaid wages.  This is the Keli Yakar's main argument:

 

Although the Holy One, Blessed be He, could have simply given them great wealth, He wished them to receive it as wages for their labor, as Gaviah ben Pasisa stated in the Talmud.  That was the only way to placate that righteous one (Avraham Avinu),[1] for the possessions had to be those of the Egyptians in exchange for their work.  That is why it is written, "Afterwards, they will go out with great wealth" (Bereishit 15:14), that is, after completing their labor.

 

Some commentators attempt to legally justify the "deception" of the Egyptians with this approach.  Since the wealth taken represented unpaid wages, although Bnei Yisrael could not seize items by force, they could hold onto them once they received them as a loan, as the money came into their possession legally.    

 

C.        CREATING EMOTIONAL CLOSURE

 

The Seforno suggests a completely different approach regarding why the act of requesting wealth was so important.  When the Jewish people were first commanded to request wealth from the Egyptians, Bnei Yisrael feared that if they took gold and silver from them, this would cause the Egyptians to pursue them.  Hashem commanded them again, instead of simply asking them, and He promised them that they would have nothing to fear.  Asking their former taskmasters for wealth would become a dramatic demonstration of their freedom.

 

This approach differs from the previous ones in that it interprets the request as serving a primarily psychological purpose, instead of concentrating on the technical financial legalities of the transaction (a gift, exchange, or redemption of unpaid wages). 

 

That the transfer of money played an emotional purpose was first suggested by Josephus, but he views the Egyptians as the beneficiaries of the transaction:

 

The Egyptians bestowed gifts upon them so they would hasten to leave, and they accepted these gifts as a show of neighborliness.  As they left, the Egyptians wept, contrite over their evil treatment. (Antiquities of the Jews II:14)

 

By providing the Jewish people with tremendous wealth upon leaving in a willing and loving manner, the Egyptians were able to tangibly express their feelings of guilt and regret for their cruel and vicious behavior over the previous years.

 

One recent commentator suggests that it was the Jewish people, not the Egyptians, who were in greater emotional need to receive gifts from the Egyptians:

 

In the heart of a Jew, the name Egypt immediately recalled many bitter and unpleasant associations.  How could he not, for had not the Egyptian's ancestor enslaved and embittered his ancestors, and how could he (the Jew) be expected to treat the Egyptian under the guidelines by which all strangers/converts be treated?  "Is it possible that the rule of 'And you shall love him' apply to him?"  However, the Torah states that in the end, they sent you out with silver and gold, and treated you with the same respect that you are obligated to treat one of your own brethren when you free them from their period of servitude: "Do not let him leave empty-handed" (Devarim 15).   Therefore, the Torah states, "Do not despise the Egyptian for you were a stranger in his land."  Since the Egyptians did not fully appreciate the import of what was occurring and would not have given them gifts of their own initiative, the Jews were commanded to encourage them to part with their riches so that they part as friends. (Benno Jacob, from the end of his article Gott und Pharao Monatsschrift fur Geschichte und Wisseschaft des Judentums)

 

What Benno Jacob suggests is a psychological truth whose import we are only beginning to appreciate.  The victims of trauma and violence suffer greatly; however, part of the process of healing, when and if the time is appropriate, includes the act of forgiveness.  This does not absolve or release the perpetrator from responsibility, but allows the victim to proceed without harboring strong feelings of resentment and anger, which may paralyze them in the past and leave them unable to move forward.  At the moment of parting, Hashem intentionally arranged for the people's last memories of Egypt to be positive ones so that they would be able to leave Egypt behind them and go forward to fulfill their destiny at Mount Sinai and become "a kingdom of priests and a light unto the nations."   

 



[1]  Based on Berachot 7a, "So that this righteous man (Avraham Avinu) should not say, 'Hashem fulfilled His word 'they will enslave and torture them' (Bereishit 15:13), but He did not fulfill His promise 'and afterwards, they will go out with great wealth.'"