by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, author of Unlocking the Torah Text
Finally, Moshe receives the news for which he has waited. “One last affliction shall I bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt,” says God. “After that he shall send you forth from here.”
Immediately, however, God continues with the following instruction: “Speak, please, in the ears of the people and let each man request from his [Egyptian] friend and each woman from her [Egyptian] friend vessels of silver and vessels of gold.”
The Torah later attests to the successful fulfillment of God’s directive: “And the children of Israel did as Moshe had directed; they requested from the Egyptians vessels of silver, vessels of gold and garments. And God granted the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians and they granted their request – and they [the Israelites] despoiled Egypt.”
God’s instructions to Moshe at this powerful moment are deeply troubling. One would expect the birth of the Jewish nation to be heralded by lofty principles and ideas. Why, then, does God specifically ask the Israelites to mark the first footfalls of their national history with the accumulation of material wealth? Is this what the slaves should be thinking of as they prepare for their journey to freedom?
The very idea seems not only out of place, but contrary to the creation of a people for whom spiritual search and religious ideal should be more important than material acquisition.
Why is this directive couched in terms of a request rather than a commandment? If God wanted the people to leave Egypt with possessions, why involve the Israelites in their acquisition? God could have miraculously bestowed riches upon the departing slaves in any number of ways.
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Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.