Parashat Bo: Earning Redemption Through Empathy
Parashat Bo tells of the Exodus from Egypt, the great moment when our ancestors left Egypt after 210 years of bondage and oppression.
Many Rabbis addressed the question of why G-d brought Beneh Yisrael from Egypt after 210 years, despite his having decreed that they would suffer exile and bondage for 400 years. Back in the Book of Bereshit (15:13), G-d informed Abraham Abinu that his descendants would be oppressed by a foreign nation for 400 years. Why, then, were Beneh Yisrael taken out of Egypt after just 210 years?
Among the more famous answers given to this question is one suggested by the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797), who explained that the slave labor Beneh Yisrael performed was so grueling and intense, that their 210 years of bondage was practically equivalent to 400 years of bondage. They left 190 years early because they experienced in 210 years the amount of suffering that would have taken 400 years under normal slave conditions. Others suggest that since Beneh Yisrael’s population grew so rapidly, the nation as a whole endured 400 years’ worth of slavery and oppression in 210 years.
However, there is also an additional answer to this question.
When G-d first appeared to Moshe at the burning bush to announce that He would soon be bringing Beneh Yisrael from Egypt, He told Moshe that before the people leave, "each woman should request from her neighbor…silver and gold utensils, and clothing…" (Shemot 3:22). As G-d wanted Beneh Yisrael to bring Egypt’s riches with them when they left the country, He instructed that the people should ask their Egyptian neighbors for their belongings in preparation for their departure. In Parashat Bo, however, when G-d spoke to Moshe just before bringing the final plague upon the Egyptians, He told Moshe to instruct Beneh Yisrael that "each person shall request from his fellow, and each woman from her friend, silver and gold utensils" (11:2). Whereas initially G-d spoke of the people requesting utensils from their neighbors, here, He speaks of the people requesting from their friends. How do we reconcile this contradiction?
The answer might be that these were, in fact, two different commands, relevant to two different stages. First, Beneh Yisrael were to take the belongings of their Egyptian neighbors. As a result, those among the nation with wealthy Egyptian neighbors ended up with far more than those with neighbors who did not have wealth. This created a significant gap between different members of the nation, with some having become fabulously wealthy, and others having received very little. Therefore, as part of the preparations for the Exodus, G-d instructed the people to request utensils and clothing from their friends – meaning, their friends among Beneh Yisrael. The "have nots" were to ask the "haves" to share their wealth with them.
Once this happened, and those who were blessed with great wealth shared it with the others, Beneh Yisrael were worthy of redemption. Beneh Yisrael earned their miraculous freedom through the great merit of empathy, of looking out for one another and caring for those who are less fortunate.
In a similar vein, the Arugot Ha’bosem offers an explanation for why Beneh Yisrael left Egypt after 210 years, without having to complete the entire 400-year period that had been decreed. During the period of bondage, the people suffered not only because of their own pain, but also because of the pain of their fellow Jews. They empathized with one another’s plight, and thus their suffering was compounded, as they grieved and wept for their own misfortune as well as for the misfortune endured by others. Therefore, the 400 years of suffering was completed in just 210 years.
When we empathize with our fellow Jew, when we feel the pain of those who are less privileged and do what we can to assist them, we become worthy of redemption, and of the grace and kindness that Hashem showed to our ancestors at the time of the Exodus. By extending ourselves on behalf of those who need our help, we will hasten the arrival of our final redemption, may it come speedily and in our days, Amen.