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Parashat Shemot: The Spoils of Egypt

When G-d spoke to Moshe for the first time, and instructed him to return to Egypt and lead Beneh Yisrael to freedom, He mentioned that when the people will leave Egypt, "they will not leave empty-handed. Each woman will borrow from her neighbor…silver and gold utensils, and garments…" (3:22). Beneh Yisrael would "borrow" their Egyptian neighbors’ belongings, and bring these possessions with them as they left Egypt. Indeed, we read later (12:35) that the time of the Exodus from Egypt, "And Beneh Yisrael did as Moshe said – they borrowed from Egypt silver and gold utensils, and garments."

The implication of the text is that Beneh Yisrael deceived the Egyptians, "borrowing" their belongings knowing full well that they would never return them. The obvious question arises as to why G-d would command such a thing. Why would He have Beneh Yisrael act immorally and fool the Egyptians? True, G-d had promised Abraham Abinu that after his descendants would endure a period of oppression in a foreign land, they would then leave with great wealth (Bereshit 15:14). But G-d clearly had an infinite number of ways to make this happen. Why did He choose to have Beneh Yisrael "borrow" their Egyptian neighbors’ possessions without the intention of giving them back?

In fact, the Or Ha’haim Ha’kadosh (Rav Haim Ben-Attar, 1696-1743) notes that the Torah emphasizes that "Beneh Yisrael did as Moshe said" – meaning, they took the Egyptians’ belongings only because they trusted Moshe’s instructions. The Rambam writes in Hilchot Yesodeh Ha’Torah that if a prophet, whose authenticity has already been confirmed, instructs the people to transgress a Torah command, then as long as he does not call for that command’s permanent abrogation, he should be obeyed. (The classic example of this Halacha is the story of Eliyahu, who offered a sacrifice on Mount Carmel despite the prohibition against bringing sacrifices outside the Bet Ha’mikdash.) Moshe was now calling upon the people to commit a clear violation of Torah law – to deceive the Egyptians and essentially steal from them, by pretending to borrow their possessions when in truth they were taking them to keep. The people obeyed this command only because Moshe – a confirmed prophet – instructed them to do this as a "Hora’at Sha’a" – an extraordinary, one-time provision. Such conduct normally is strictly forbidden, but an exception was made in this instance, as G-d had commanded the people to take their Egyptian neighbors’ possessions.

Why was this exception made? Why did G-d want Beneh Yisrael to take the Egyptians’ belongings this way?

An answer may be suggested in light of the Gemara’s discussion in Masechet Pesahim (39a) about the Misva of Marror. The Mishna there establishes that the preferred vegetable to use for fulfilling this Misva is "Hazeret," which the Gemara defines as "Hasa" (lettuce). The Gemara explains the connection between "Hasa" and Beneh Yisrael’s enslavement in Egypt, stating, "Why were the Egyptians compared to Marror? To teach you that just as this Marror is first soft and then hard, the Egyptians, too, were at first soft, and then became hard." The lettuce leaves are soft when they first begin to grow, and eventually harden. The Egyptians, too, began treating Beneh Yisrael "softly," with outward kindness, before becoming harsh and cruel. Rashi explains that the Egyptians lured Beneh Yisrael to become their slaves by first offering attractive salaries for their labor. But then, after Beneh Yisrael signed up to work as laborers, the Egyptians stopped paying them, and they ended up as the Egyptians’ slaves.

Our Sages in the Midrash explain how each of the ten plagues which G-d brought upon Egypt punished the Egyptians "Midda Ke’negged Midda" ("measure for measure"), corresponding to the crimes they committed against Beneh Yisrael. By the same token, we might assume that Beneh Yisrael’s deception of the Egyptians, too, served as a punishment "Midda Ke’negged Midda." Beneh Yisrael’s enslavement was brought about through deception – and so it ended through deception. The Egyptians fooled Beneh Yisrael by promising long-term, gainful employment, when in truth their intent was to enslave them. G-d punished the Egyptians by having Beneh Yisrael now deceive the Egyptians by "borrowing" their belongings without any intention to return them. This exceptional command was given for the purpose of punishing the Egyptians, of having them fall victims to deception just as they had cruelly deceived Beneh Yisrael.

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