Posted on March 23, 2011
by Tamar Green
Parashat Bo takes its name from the first words of God’s command to Moshe. “Go (Bo) to Pharaoh.” Moshe and Aaron continue to plead with Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free. Pharaoh refuses and the Egyptians are punished with the 8th, 9th and 10th plagues, locusts, darkness and finally, death of the first born.
Just before the tenth and final plague is brought upon the Egyptians and immediately following the plague of darkness, Moshe is commanded by God to tell the Israelites “To borrow each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.” The Torah informs us that the Egyptians willingly gave the Israelites what they requested and “Thus they stripped the Egyptians.”
This description from the Torah raises many troubling questions. Did the Israelites take advantage of the Egyptians when they “stripped” them of their gold and silver? Does the Torah justify robbery from the Egyptians? Why were the Egyptians willing to hand over their wealth to the Israelites?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh believes that the Israelites did not steal or take advantage of the Egyptians in the slightest. He comments that the Israelites “proved their sterling moral quality” during the three days of darkness when their oppressors were completely helpless in power, and all of the Egyptian treasures lay open in the houses, yet “No Jew took the opportunity to take advantage either against their persons or their possessions”. Because the Israelites did not take advantage of the Egyptians, the Torah is not justifying robbery from the Egyptians.
The question still remains; why were the Egyptians willing to give their riches to the Israelites? Ramban (Nachmanides) suggests that the gold and silver that the Egyptians gave to the Israelites represented atonement, admission of guilt, and a request for pardon. Thus in requesting and accepting Egyptian “gifts”, Ramban believed that perhaps the Israelites were also expressing their readiness to forgive their oppressors.
I disagree with Ramban. If the Egyptians gave gifts requesting forgiveness for enslaving the Israelites for 436 years, the remaining generations of Israelites could not accept and grant forgiveness to the Egyptians. In Judaism, one may only be forgiven by the individual who has been wronged and no one else may forgive on that individual’s behalf. The surviving Israelites had no right and no ability to forgive the Egyptians on behalf of the entire people that had been enslaved including those that had died, thus if the gifts represented atonement, the living Israelites would not have been permitted to accept and thereby forgive.
In the mid 300s BCE, Gaviha ben Pasisa argued that what the Israelites had taken was neither gift nor stolen property but rather reparations for the 436 years of slave labor, the suffering and the unpaid wages.
In 1951 the Israeli government debated the question of whether or not to seek “reparations” from the Germans. The Nazis had murdered six million Jew, destroyed Jewish owned businesses, and properties worth millions of dollars, used slave labor, and left hundreds of thousands sick, homeless and orphaned. Ben Gurion argued that although the losses could never fully be repaid, the State of Israel was justified in seeking $1.5 billion from Germany as “material reparations”. Although those that had been murdered could never be recompensed, the heirs should receive payment for the material. The Herut party objecting saying that the acceptance of payment would represent the “ultimate abomination” of those that had been murdered by the Nazis. In 1952 the Knesset voted (61-50) to accept reparations.
The “reparations” from Germany to the Jewish people after the Shoah are parallel to the “gifts” of silver and gold that the Israelites took from the Egyptians. Is it possible to separate reparations for the material from the brutal cruelty? Can reparations ever be made for the suffering? A price cannot be placed on a life, or on six million lives, or the lives of an entire nation for 436 years of slavery. It may be possible to make reparations for the “material”. The Israelites had every right to accept the gifts of gold and silver just as Jews have every right to accept the money from the Germans, but true reparations can never be made.