Amid the final plagues and preparations for liberation in this week’s parashah, a most curious occurrence stands out. God instructs Moses, saying, “Tell the people to request, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold” (Exodus 11:2). The Israelites comply: “The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and asked from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold and clothing” (Exodus 12:35).
How can we understand our liberation being forged through dishonesty or thievery of goods from our Egyptian captors?
Our commentators generally offer two responses. First is that these goods were either rewarded or taken legally. After all, “If a fellow Hebrew, man or woman, is sold to you as a slave, he shall serve you six years and in the seventh year you shall set him free. When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed. Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor and vat, with which the Lord your God has blessed you” (Deuteronomy 15:12–14). If six years of slavery are rewarded with basic goods, 430 years of the subjugation of an entire people should be rewarded with the finery described in the parsahah. However, it is hard to imagine the Egyptians following Israelite law. If so, the subjugation of the Israelites would have never persisted in the first place!
The ancient historian Josephus offers a more nuanced approach: “The Egyptians honored the Israelites with gifts in order to hasten their departure, and others out of good neighborliness and the friendship they bore them. When they went forth the Egyptians wept and suffered remorse for the way they had treated them” (Antiquities, 2:14). Josephus imagines the Egyptians honestly repenting for their misdeeds and seeking to compensate their former slaves.
The 19th-century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argues similarly that during the plague of darkness, the Israelites do not take advantage of their captors’ blindness to steal from them. The Egyptians are awed by their captives’ moral greatness and reward them with finery.
Still, both answers only leave us with more questions. If the Egyptians truly repent, why does God enact the 10th plague, killing all Egyptian first-born sons? And why does God need to command the Israelites to borrow the items if the Egyptians are seeking to give them away?
The Talmud offers an answer: “The Israelites endured 430 years of bondage in the land of Egypt. The borrowed items only accounted for a small fraction of the debt owed to Israel for the work of 600,000 men over a 430-year period” (Sanhedrin 91a). The Israelites acquire the goods as reparations for slavery, but the Egyptians begrudgingly give them only a sliver of what is truly owed. God responds with the 10th plague. This also explains why God commands the Israelites to borrow these items, as the Egyptians are not keen on giving them away. Thus the borrowed items almost act as an 11th plague and a test upon the Egyptian people, which they unanimously fail.
A second argument stems from the dissimilarity between God’s commandment regarding borrowing in
Exodus 11 and the account of their actions in Exodus 12. First, God tells the Israelites to borrow from their neighbors (re’eihu). Instead, they take from the Egyptians. Second, God commands that objects of gold and silver be taken. The Israelites take gold, silver and clothing. In other words, the Israelites go far past the line God has set and take advantage of their Egyptian captors. God wants them to take certain items from a handful of righteous neighbors, but they get greedy and take more things from more people — stealing from their captors.
Both of these interpretations carry later significance in Exodus. On one hand, the gold, silver and fabrics will serve as key building materials of the mishkan. The reparations of freedom are directed toward servitude of God rather than that of Pharoah. On the other, objects of gold will later be melted down into the golden calf. Thus this moment of either glory or disgrace will lead to greater moments of glory or disgrace. Either way, this brief moment of compensation or thievery will stay with us for a long time, out of Egypt and into our future in the wilderness.
Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe is a rabbi at Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. He can be reached at email@example.com.