Paroh agrees to allow Bnai Yisrael to leave Egypt to serve Hashem. However, only the adults may leave. The children must remain. In our pasuk, Paroh tells Moshe that he acquiesces to the request to leave Egypt. However, he adds that evil awaits Bnai Yisrael. In other words, he predicts that Bnai Yisrael are destined to suffer. What was Paroh's basis for this prediction?
The commentaries offer various explanation of Paroh's prediction. One of the most interesting is provided by Gershonides. He explains that Paroh could no longer deny the existence of a deity that caused these plagues. However, he claimed that this powerful god could only produce destruction. His proof was that all of the plagues were destructive. He warned Bnai Yisrael that if they chose to follow this god they would be doomed. Ultimately, they too would suffer the wrath of the god of destruction. Based on this interpretation of Paroh's prediction, Gershonides answers a number of other difficult questions. At Sinai, Hashem threatened to destroy Bnai Yisrael. Moshe pleads with Hashem to spare the nation. He tells Hashem that the annihilation of Bnai Yisrael will confirm the claims of the Egyptians. We can now understand Moshe's argument. According to the interpretation of Gershonides, Paroh had claimed that a deity only capable of destruction had redeemed the Jewish nation. The destruction of the nation would lend credibility to the Egyptian's claim.
This also explains another incident. Upon leaving Egypt, Bnai Yisrael came to Marah. The water in Marah was too bitter to drink. The nation came to Moshe. "What will we drink?" they asked. Hashem showed them a tree. This tree was placed in the water. The water became potable. Moshe then spoke to the nation. He told them that they must follow the laws of Hashem. If they are faithful, they will not suffer the afflictions experienced by the Egyptian. He concluded by referring to the Almighty as the healer of the nation. This is a very difficult incident to understand. First, why did Hashem lead the nation to a location that was without water? Certainly, He knew they would need water to survive. Why wait until the nation appealed to Moshe before providing potable water? Second, what is the meaning of Moshe's speech? He tells the nation that if they observe the mitzvot, they will not suffer. This would seem self-evident! Why did Moshe need to make this point? Finally, why does Moshe refer to Hashem as a healer? Of all the characteristics of Hashem, why mention this one?
According to the insight of Gershonides, all of these questions are answered. Hashem realized that some members of Bnai Yisrael would be concerned with Paroh's prediction. They had been rescued from Egypt but only through the destruction of the Egyptians. This reinforced Paroh's claim. Hashem wished to indicate that He also does good. Therefore, he brought them to Marah. Here, He performed a miracle that did not involve any element of destruction. Moshe's comments can now be understood. Moshe told the people that Paroh's concept of Hashem was wrong. True, Hashem had destroyed the Egyptians. But this was not because Hashem's only tools are suffering and destruction. The Egyptians were destroyed because they were evil. If Bnai Yisrael observed the mitzvot, they would not experience this suffering. Moshe then proves his point. Hashem had "healed" the water. This proved that far from being a god of destruction, the Almighty removed suffering and healed. A god that removes imperfection and heals cannot be the god envisioned by Paroh.
"Speak now to the nation. And each man should ask from his neighbor and each woman from her neighbor vessels of silver and vessels of gold." (Shemot 11:2)
Hashem tells Moshe that Bnai Yisrael should ask the Egyptians to give them their valuables. This will fulfill the promise that Hashem made to Avraham. He told Avraham that his descendants will be afflicted in a strange land. But at the end of this exile they will leave the land of their bondage with the wealth of their former masters. Hashem tells Moshe that he should address Bnai Yisrael with this command "now". The actual word used in the pasuk is nah. Unkelus and others provide this translation for the term. However, the Talmud offers a different translation for the term nah. In Tractate Berachot, the Sages explain that the term means please. According to this translation, Hashem was asking Moshe to request from the Bnai Yisrael that they loot Egypt. It is unusual for Hashem to express Himself in the context of a request. Why, here, is this strange mode of expression used? The Talmud responds that Hashem did not want to be criticized by Avraham. If the nation did not leave with the Egyptian's wealth, Avraham could complain that the Almighty had not completely fulfilled His covenant. He had subjected the nation to suffering. But He had not provided the promised reward.
This entire discussion is difficult to understand. The Talmud seems concerned with the implications of the omnipotent Hashem making a request. Yet, the response seems inadequate. If Hashem wanted to fulfill His promise to Avraham, let Him command Bnai Yisrael to loot Egypt. Furthermore, should not the Almighty be true to His commitments regardless of human perceptions? The issue is not that Avraham will feel that Hashem's promise is unfulfilled. The issue is that, in fact, the promise is not fulfilled! The Talmud provides some assistance in answering this question. It explains that Bnai Yisrael were perfectly content to leave Egypt without these spoils. There are a number of reasons offered for this attitude. First, they were escaping bondage. A person rescued from such terrible suffering does not think about wealth. Freedom is sufficient reward. Second, the people knew that they were to travel to the land of Israel. They would be required to transport any possessions they took from Egypt. Understandably, the people wished to minimize their burden. These comments seem to suggest an additional question. Why was Hashem concerned with the fulfillment of His promise? The people did not want the wealth of the Egyptians!
Klee Yakar responds that we must better understand the promise that the Almighty made to Avraham. Hashem had promised that Bnai Yisrael would leave the land of their affliction with wealth. Why was this wealth necessary? Klee Yakar explains that this wealth was intended as some level of compensation to Bnai Yisrael for their labor. This has two implications. First, it was important that Bnai Yisrael receive the payment. Second, the compensation must come from the Egyptians. Both of these requirements must be met to avoid any perception of injustice. Now our questions can be answered. The use of the term nah is designed to communicate an important message. Literally, the term means now. However, it also can mean please. Why did the Almighty use this term? He was acknowledging that the wealth was a form of compensation. Therefore, the nation had the right to decline this payment. However, declining would create a perception of injustice. We can also understand Hashem's concern with perceptions. As compensation, the Jews had a right to refuse the spoils. However, a perception of injustice would result. Bnai Yisrael would have worked without payment. The Egyptians would have benefited from their evil actions. In order to avoid this perception it was essential that Bnai Yisrael confiscate the wealth of the Egyptians.
Sefer Shemot 32:12.
Sefer Shemot 15:22-26.
Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), pp. 41-42.
Mesechet Berachot 9b.
Rav Shlomo Ephraim Luntshitz, Commentary Klee Yakar on Sefer Shemot 11:2.