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.
Some scholars focus on the word v’yishalu, “and they shall request,” in an attempt to determine the moral underpinnings of God’s directive to the Israelites.
Was the wealth transferred to the departing slaves freely given, they wonder, or did the Egyptians view the transaction as a loan which they expected to be returned?
Rabbeinu Bachya, quoting the position of Rabbeinu Chananel, emphatically rejects the possibility that God commanded the Israelites to deceive the Egyptians: “Heaven forbid that the Holy One Blessed Be He would have sanctioned fraud, that they should borrow vessels of silver and vessels of gold and not return them.”
Rather, continues Rabbeinu Bachya, the verb lishol, in this context, means to ask for the items as a full gift with no expectation of return.
Other commentaries assert, however, that the wealth was, indeed, given by the Egyptians to the Israelites as a loan with full expectation of return.
Some, such as the Netziv, go so far as to claim that God’s intent is to further entrap the Egyptian population. The Egyptians fully expect the Israelites to return after a three-day holiday. To further ensure that the Egyptians will pursue the departing slaves when they fail to return, God instructs the Israelites to “borrow” wealth from their erstwhile masters. Angered by the apparent deceit and anxious to retrieve their possessions, the Egyptians will have an additional reason to follow the Israelites to the banks of the Reed Sea. This aspect of the Exodus, like so many others, is designed to lead the Egyptians to their unavoidable rendezvous with destiny in the roiling waters of that sea.
Noting the questionable morality of such deceit, the Netziv asserts that the Egyptians had earned, through their own actions, to be treated in this fashion. He then closes his comments, however, with the statement “The mind of God remains beyond our ken.”
The fundamental questions, however, remain: Why is the transference of wealth from the Egyptians to the Israelites so critical to the Exodus? Why, as well, must the Israelites request that wealth from their former taskmasters?
Central to the rabbinic approach to these questions is recognition of the moment of the Exodus as a powerfully formative moment for the Jewish people. The Israelites’ self-perception as they leave Egypt is of vital importance to the development of their national character. God does not want the departing slaves to sneak out of Egypt in the darkness of the night.
Numerous scholars, therefore, argue that the wealth accrued by the departing slaves is actually payment for their years of service and servitude. The Kli Yakar asserts:
“Even though no obstacle prevented God from bestowing great wealth upon the Israelites without their having to take from the Egyptians through borrowing and subterfuge, nonetheless, the God of justice orchestrates events in order to redeem from the Egyptian population the wages owed to the Israelites for their labor.”
The wealth of the Egyptians cannot be given to the Israelites as a gift from God. They must, instead, receive these riches directly from their taskmasters so that they will understand that their past labor had value for which they must be paid.
A final, additional dimension to the episode before us can be discerned if we consider the eventual use to which the wealth received from the Egyptians is put.
The gold and silver of Egypt is ultimately applied by the Israelites to two projects that could not be more vastly different: the construction of the golden calf and the creation of the Mishkan (the portable sanctuary that traveled with the Israelites through the desert). The acquired riches thus become the medium through which the Israelites actualize their choices for good and for bad.
Freedom is only meaningful if you have something to lose. If the Israelites had left Egypt with nothing precious, nothing that they truly saw as their own, their liberation would have been incomplete. They would have had no way to actualize their responsibilities, to concretize their independent decisions.
God, therefore, directs the departing slaves to acquire wealth. He does not grant these riches as a gift. The Israelites must see them as earned.
The true challenge of an independent nation then faces the erstwhile slaves: how will they use their own prosperity, which they have earned through the sweat of their brow? The choices they make determine the very quality of their freedom.
Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.