One of the unique and seemingly strange features of the story of the Exodus is that while the Egyptians were being pummeled by the Ten Plagues, the Jews were commanded to borrow all sorts of material objects from the Egyptians, “that each man should borrow from his fellow, and every woman from her friends, vessels of gold and silver ” (Exodus 11:2).
Several questions stand out. First, why were the Jews borrowing anything? They were about to leave, never to return. Was it really their intention at this point to deceive the Egyptians? Furthermore, during the final plague of the firstborn, a time of utter devastation and chaos throughout the land, they could have simply taken whatever they wished, as the Egyptians were desperate for the Jews to leave.
If God wanted to transfer the wealth of Egypt to the newly freed slaves, it would have been relatively easy to accomplish, considering the many miraculous events that had become the norm during the Exodus. It eventually transpired at the splitting of the sea, as our sages note, “greater was the bounty recovered at the sea, than was taken from Egypt” (Midrash Tanchuma).
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a) records a remarkable event that took place during the reign of Alexander the Great of Macedon (356-323 BCE). An Egyptian delegation appealed to him to require the Jews to pay restitution for the gold and silver their ancestors took during the Exodus. Alexander asked the Jews to respond.
A Jew named Geviha petitioned the sages to allow him to represent the Jewish claim before the great military leader. He told them: “If they defeat me, you can always say that I was a nobody, hardly a sage. If I win, it will be a vindication for the eternity of the Torah of Moses.”
Geviha approached the delegation before Alexander and asked, “On what basis do you bring your claim?” They responded: “From your very own Torah. It is explicitly written that you took all our wealth.”
Geviha responded, “I, too, will use the Torah for my people’s defense. The Torah also records in the very same portion that the Jewish people, numbering 600,000 excluding women and children, were enslaved for 430 years. We demand payment for the years of labor, and we will gladly return your possessions.”
The Egyptians requested three days to consider a response. When they didn’t return, it was discovered that they fled back home.
While the Talmud makes the case that the Jews were entitled to the loot of Egypt, it doesn’t answer why the need to borrow and be deceptive. Examining the precise wording of the text provides an extraordinary answer to this vexing question and also brings to bear a powerful moral and ethical lesson.
The Torah emphasizes that every Jew was to borrow from his rei’eihu (fellow). It boggles the mind that the very people who were enslaving the Jews would suddenly be gracious and lend their valuables.
What emerges is that the Jews were not meant to approach the Egyptians; rather, they were told to lend to each other. Only when the Egyptians saw the Jewish slaves sharing benevolently with each other were they inspired to follow suit.
After hundreds of years of servitude and loss of sovereignty, the most important Jewish values of tzedakah and gemilut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness), which were hallmarks of our patriarch Abraham and passed to his descendants in perpetuity, had to be reintroduced to his children, even while they had not yet been liberated. The function of this exercise was to show that every person has the capacity and obligation to share with those less fortunate, even when one may be in dire straits himself.
The last prerequisite for redemption in Egypt was for Jews to practice tzedakah with each other. So, too, by modeling our ancestors’ behavior in anticipation of our redemption, we will inspire those around us to give and share, creating a world of goodness and kindness. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.