The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Daf Shvui No. 114
Dr. Daniel Statman
Department of Philosophy
And You Shall Exploit Egypt
In our parashah G-d reveals Himself to Moses, ordering him to go to Pharaoh, with a delegation of the Elders of Israel and announcing to him the nature of events to come. Among other things, G-d informs Moses that, after the plagues take place and Egypt is willing to let the Israelites depart, " I will grant this people favor in the eyes of Egypt and it shall be when you go out, you will not go empty-handed: but every woman will ask of her neighbor or of her that dwells in her house vessels of silver and gold and garments, and you shall place them upon your sons and your daughters, and you shall exploit Egypt" (Ex. 3:21-22). This prophecy is a more detailed version of the one given to Abraham in the Covenant of the Parts (Brit ben Habetarim) : "and after that (i.e. after the enslavement in Egypt) they shall go out with great wealth" (Gen. 15,15). Later on, when the Israelites do in fact leave Egypt, the Torah tells us: "and the Children of Israel did what Moses said and they asked of Egypt vessels of silver and gold and garments, and the Lord gave the people favor in the eyes of Egypt and they complied and they exploited Egypt" (Ex. 12:35-36).
This "asking" (or "borrowing") of silver and gold on the part of the Israelites seems problematic from a moral standpoint, considering the obvious fact that none of the property in question was ever returned. Was this merely a collective act of stealing under the guise of a Divine command? This accusation was made against the Jews by learned gentiles even in ancient times, and Jewish scholars were forced to answer it. According to one answer, which appears as early as the works of Philo of Alexandria, the property taken by the Israelites was theirs by right - for two reasons:
"Not out of greed, nor as their accusers might say, out of covetousness of the property of others - no indeed! But, first of all, they were receiving in this way the bare wages they deserved for all their time of service. Secondly they were retaliating for their enslavement - albeit to a lesser extent and not in equal measure, for what similarity is there between monetary loss and the loss of freedom?" (The Life of Moses, 1, 141).
A similar argument appears in the Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 91a:
"On one occasion the Egyptians lodged a complaint against the people of Israel before Alexander the Great . They said to him : Is it not written: 'and the Lord gave the people favor in the eyes of Egypt' and they complied? Now give us back the silver and gold which you took from us ... He said to them: I too will bring you proof from the Torah, for it is written: 'And the sojourn of the Israelites who dwelt in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years'. Give us compensation for the labor of 600,000 men whom you enslaved in Egypt for four hundred and thirty years ... They searched but could find no answer".
According to a different approach, the word "vayashilum" ("they lent them") has the meaning of "gave" - in other words it was clear to the Egyptians at the time that they gave their property that it was being given as an unconditional gift. Thus, for example, Rashbam notes:
"And each woman asked of her neighbor" as an absolute, unconditional gift, since it is [written] : "and I will grant this people favor" [in other words, the Egyptians gave out of goodwill as a token of their recognition of the people's favor], and this is the straightforward sense of the text and a fit reply to heretics".
A similar approach, found in the Talmud, holds that the Israelites did not want to take the gifts with which the Egyptians proposed to shower them, and that the Almighty was finally forced to beg them to agree so that His prophecy to Abraham would be fulfilled: "and after that they shall go out with great wealth" (Berachot 9a-b).
We are, then, offered two types of justification for taking the property of the Egyptians: A. The property was owed to the Israelites and they therefore took only what was theirs. B. The Egyptians gave their property as an unconditional gift and out of good will. A somewhat different answer can be found in the long commentary of Ibn Ezra who says the following:
"And there are those who complain and say that our forefathers were thieves. But they must see that it was a commandment from Above [ that is G-d commanded it, and it was not the initiative of the people]. And there is no point in asking why, because G-d created everything. He gives riches to whom He chooses and takes them away and gives them to someone else. And this is not evil because all of it is His".
Since G-d is the creator of the heavens and the earth and everything is His, He may certainly to transfer one person's property to another since the property in any case did not really belong to one person or another but to G-d. Therefore, the Egyptians had no right to complain over the gold and silver which was taken from them, because G-d, the true owner of the silver and gold, had decided to transfer this wealth to the Israelites. This approach, however, clouds somewhat the issue of divine justice, since it implies that no redistribution of wealth can be evil regardless of its nature. Certainly there must be a difference between just and unjust distribution, and it is unthinkable that G-d allocates His property randomly. Thus, Ibn Ezra's interpretation is not a sufficient answer to our problem, it needs to be completed by one of the explanations brought above [on the subject of the "property rights" of G-d in the world and their ethical meaning see Danny Statman and Avi Sagi, Dat Umussar, Jerusalem, 1992, chap. 3].
Translated by: Phil Lerman, Kibbutz Beerot Yitzchak