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G-d said to Moses, “I will bring one more plague on Pharaoh and on Egypt… after that he will drive you out… Please tell the people to request of his (Egyptian) neighbor silver and gold vessels…” G-d granted the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians… (11:1-3).
This request seems rather unusual, given the suffering Israelites’ former status of slaves, only then about to be freed. Why did should the Israelites be commanded to take their valuables, rather than things which would be more useful for a journey through the desert – such as food, clothing, tents and so on? Obvious answers would suggest that gold and silver were essential for purchasing food en-route (Deut. 2:6), and as materials for building the Tabernacle (25:8) – indeed it seems that the first step in making the Tabernacle was relieving the Egyptians of their valuables.
However the Talmud gives a different reason for G-d ordering this ‘request’. It brings the tradition that G-d asked Moses to make a special effort to prevail upon the Israelites to request valuables from their Egyptians neighbors so that the soul of Abraham would not have a grievance against G-d. If they did not, Abraham’s soul would complain that G-d did carry out the prophecy of ‘they will enslave them’ (Gen. 15:14) in full measure, but He did not keep the second part of His promise - ‘and afterwards they shall go out with great wealth’. So they had to leave as rich people…
Why does the Talmud refer to the soul of Abraham as a reason? Surely the main use of the gold and silver was for the Tabernacle: ‘This is the contribution that you shall take from them: gold, silver… You shall make a sanctuary for me so that I shall dwell among them’ (25:3,8). The whole emphasis was of the Exodus was, ‘Let my people go so that they shall serve me’ (10:3 et al.) – the Tabernacle being the center of Divine worship.
The commentary Oznayim LaTorah gives a parallel with a situation still with us today – the aftermath of the Holocaust. Many survivors of the Hitler era were deeply sickened in accepting financial reparations for the foul murders of their parents and children. They did not want to do anything to cleanse or soothe the consciences of the German people through such reparations. Moreover, any mention of Nazi Germany revolted them to such a degree that even half a century later they could no longer bring themselves to talk about it. They just wanted to be rid of the past and somehow rebuild their lives again, whether in Israel or in the Diaspora.
The same point may be applied to the Israelites. They were not interested in making elaborate preparations in leaving Egypt, by loading themselves with gold and silver. They just wanted to get out as soon as possible, grateful to be alive, never to have anything to do with the Egyptians again. They certainly did not want to ingratiate themselves with them, giving them the feeling that they had repaid their debts to generations of long-suffering Israelite slaves. Indeed, any silver and gold taken from them would nauseate them… They certainly would not have wanted to serve G-d in the desert by building a structure out of such materials – which would bring up memories of the Egyptian ‘Holocaust’ every time they saw it.
That is the reason that G-d ordered Moses to tell the Israelites to help themselves to Egypt’s wealth. It was a Divine Command that had to be carried out even though it was against the nature of many of the suffering Israelites to possess anything that would recall the memory of the former suffering. G-d was telling them in effect, ‘It is my command that you take this money as that is what I have created it for’. As the Midrash Hagadol (as quoted in the Torah Temima) writes:
Moses said to G-d, “Master of the World! The Egyptians gave them no straw (to make bricks). Will they give them silver and gold?” G-d answered, “It belongs to Me! Because the Egyptians submitted the Israelites to forced labor, their lives are forfeit and their property belongs to them as uncollected wages…”
As Ibn Ezra put it – the wealth belonged to G-d, and He gives it to whomever He wishes. It is not for the recipients to refuse it… by accepting the valuables, they were raising themselves spiritually by carrying out a commandment of G-d, even though it went against their natures.
The following anecdote illustrates this principle:
Years ago in Europe, an observant soldier in the Austrian army was granted a one-day leave to visit his parents. His orders required him to return to the base before evening. However, that evening would be Purim, and the soldier’s mother insisted vehemently that he should remain at home for the Reading of the Megillah. Knowing that his failing to report on time to his base would be taken as a serious breach of discipline, the soldier argued that he could not stay. A heated controversy ensued in the house, until the family decided to bring the problem to the Kopochinitzer Rebbe. On hearing the question, the Rebbe did not hesitate for a moment. His reply was, “Obey your mother.”
This principle shows that G-d provides the means to obey his commandments, even though they cause ‘trepidation’ and feelings of unpleasantness at the beginning… as in this case – of raiding the property of their former masters. As the text states: “G-d gave the favor of the Israelites in the eyes of the Egyptians…”
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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