By Rabbi Nancy Morris, January 29, 2009

“The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing… they stripped the Egyptians” Exodus 12:35-36

Commentators on parashat Bo have long been fascinated by the implications of the Israelites “borrowing” the Egyptian gold and silver as they quickly flee Egypt. Of course, the gold and silver was not, or ever intended, to be “borrowed”. It was demanded and handed over, for as the text says, the Israelites “stripped” the Egyptians.

The Israelites here are only doing what God had demanded of them at least a chapter earlier in the text. It would be anachronistic to read into the text any sort of ethical dilemma; the Israelites were carrying out God’s bidding by demonstrating their God as the triumphant, powerful God among the gods.

Some of the interpreters’ justifications for this are fascinating. Umberto Cassuto, echoing a talmudic discussion, saw it as a just farewell payment. Thus, the gold and silver was a type of compensation for all the years of hard slave labour carried out by the Israelites.

Nachmanides, on the other hand, presents a contrasting hypothesis: the gold and silver payment is not so much just compensation, but an attempt to atone for the damages inflicted on the Israelites. The text lends itself to such a reading as it hints at a ready willingness on the part of the Egyptians to hand over the objects. The Egyptians were not “paying” the Israelites, but rather attempting atonement for the wrongs they had done. Perhaps they were admitting their own wickedness, or even asking forgiveness from those they had wronged.

The distinction between the two explanations is crucial — one suggests the borrowing/demand of the valuables is for the ultimate correction of a wrong against the Israelites; the other suggests that it is a way of permitting a return to wholeness for those who have wronged them.

The brilliance of the story is that both possibilities are there in the words of the text. The history of Jewish interpretation succeeds once again to show a sublime ability to view a complicated situation from contrasting, and even paradoxical, points of view.

Perhaps we should look to the legacy of that tradition to guide us as we negotiate our way through the current minefield of trouble in the Middle East. How are we to find the insight to grasp feelings on both sides, and then balance our justifiable desire to protect our own, while fully understanding and dealing ethically with those who profess to be our enemies?

Last updated: 5:22pm, January 29 2009