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Parashat Shemot- Did Beneh Yisrael “Borrow” the Egyptians’ Utensils?

We read in Parashat Shemot of G-d’s prophecy to Moshe at the burning bush, informing Moshe that He would be rescuing Beneh Yisrael from bondage, and instructing Moshe to return to Egypt and demand that Pharaoh free the nation. Hashem tells Moshe that Beneh Yisrael would not be leaving Egypt emptyhanded, for "Ve’sha’ala Isha Mi’shechentah…Keleh Chesef U’chleh Zahab U’smalot" – "each woman will borrow from her neighbor…silver and gold utensils, and clothing" (3:22). And, Hashem added, He will ensure that Beneh Yisrael would find favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, such that the Egyptians would gladly give them their possessions to take with them as they leave (3:23).

This requires some explanation. Hashem told Beneh Yisrael to "borrow" ("Ve’sha’ala") the Egyptians’ belongings, even though they clearly had no intention of returning them. Is this not theft? Why were Beneh Yisrael allowed to deceive the Egyptians by asking to borrow their possessions with the intention of keeping them forever?

One answer to this question is offered by the Rashbam (Rav Shemuel Ben Meir, France, c. 1085-c. 1158), who interprets the verb "Sh.A.L." in this verse as referring not to borrowing, but rather to asking for a gift. The Rashbam cites the verse in Tehillim (2:8), "She’al Mimeni Ve’etna Goyim Nahalatecha" – "Ask Me, and I shall grant you nations as your portion," proving that the verb "Sh.A.L." does not always mean "borrow," and can also refer to a gift. Thus, G-d informed Moshe that Beneh Yisrael will ask their Egyptian neighbors for gifts, and they will find favor in the eyes of the Egyptians who would gladly give them their belongings. Ibn Ezra adds that this interpretation is a convincing response to the "Minim" (heretics) who charge that Beneh Yisrael deceived the Egyptians and stole their possessions.

The Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089-1167), in his Perush Ha’aroch, offers a different explanation, writing, very simply, that Hashem owns everything in the world and decides who should own what. Once He commanded Beneh Yisrael to borrow the Egyptians’ belongings and keep them, then this meant that Beneh Yisrael were entitled to these possessions. By definition, this cannot be theft, because it was G-d who instructed them to take this property with them out of Egypt.

An especially novel approach is taken by the Malbim (Rav Meir Leibush, 1809-1879), who notes that Beneh Yisrael, quite obviously, owned homes in Egypt. They had real estate holdings. When they left Egypt, naturally, their Egyptian neighbors took over their homes. Therefore, the Malbim explains, Hashem told Beneh Yisrael to go to their neighbors and ask for their belongings as payment for their property which the neighbors would be taking. Beneh Yisrael were neither deceiving nor stealing from their Egyptian neighbors – they were simply asking for a fair price for the properties which they were leaving behind.

However, the Malbim adds, if this is the case, then we must explain how G-d fulfilled His promise to Abraham Abinu that his descendants would emerge from bondage "Bi’rchush Gadol" – "with great wealth" (Bereshit 15:14). If the possessions Beneh Yisrael received from the Egyptians were simply payment for their homes, then how could they be said to have left Egypt "with great wealth"?

The Malbim answers this question by noting a discrepancy between G-d’s prophecy to Moshe at the burning bush, and His commands to Beneh Yisrael on the eve of the Exodus. Whereas here G-d spoke of Beneh Yisrael requesting possessions from their neighbors, on the eve of the Exodus He told them that each person should request possessions "from his fellow" (Shemot 13:2). The Malbim explains that in addition to receiving possessions from their neighbors as payment for their homes, Beneh Yisrael also received possessions from other Egyptians, who desperately wanted Beneh Yisrael to leave, and so they happily gave them their riches. These extra possessions were the "great wealth" that Beneh Yisrael brought with them out of Egypt, in fulfillment of G-d’s promise to Abraham.

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