An Unjust Command?
When Hashem first appears to Moshe, He informs him (Shemot 3:22) that when the Israelites are driven out of Egypt, they will not leave empty-handed. Rather, the Children of Israel will request articles of gold and silver and clothing from their Egyptian neighbors and thus despoil Egypt:
וְשָׁאֲלָה אִשָּׁה מִשְּׁכֶנְתָּהּ וּמִגָּרַת בֵּיתָהּ כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב וּשְׂמָלֹת וְשַׂמְתֶּם עַל בְּנֵיכֶם וְעַל בְּנֹתֵיכֶם וְנִצַּלְתֶּם אֶת מִצְרָיִם.
And every woman shall ask of her neighbor and of her that lives in her house, articles of silver, articles of gold, and clothing; and you shall place them on your sons and on your daughters, and you shall despoil Egypt.
This is not the only mention of this deed. Hashem repeats these instructions immediately prior to the Exodus, when He tells Moshe to relay them to the Children of Israel (Shemot 11:2):
דַּבֶּר נָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם וְיִשְׁאֲלוּ אִישׁ מֵאֵת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִשָּׁה מֵאֵת רְעוּתָהּ כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב.
Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his neighbor, and every woman of her neighbor, articles of silver and articles of gold.
And finally, the Torah records that the command was implemented (Shemot 12:35–36) in the middle of the story of the Exodus itself:1
(לה) וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עָשׂוּ כִּדְבַר מֹשֶׁה וַיִּשְׁאֲלוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם כְּלֵי כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב וּשְׂמָלֹת.
(לו) וַה' נָתַן אֶת חֵן הָעָם בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרַיִם וַיַּשְׁאִלוּם וַיְנַצְּלוּ אֶת מִצְרָיִם.
(35) And the Children of Israel did according to the word of Moshe, and they asked of the Egyptians articles of silver, articles of gold, and clothing.
(36) And Hashem gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians and they gave them, and they despoiled Egypt.
This repetition is striking and warrants examination.2
Additionally, when we reflect upon this command from the various perspectives of the three parties involved – the Egyptians, Israelites, and Hashem – there are several puzzling aspects to consider:
- What was the nature of this request? Did the Egyptians intend these objects to be a gift or a loan?
- If they were a gift, why would the Egyptians give valuable presents to their despised slaves?
- If they were a loan, how could Hashem command the Israelites to deliberately mislead the Egyptians into thinking the objects would be returned?3 And was it not theft for the Israelites to ultimately keep these items?4
- Why would Hashem issue such a command? If He merely wanted to enrich the Children of Israel, could He not have done so without resorting to deceiving or despoiling the Egyptians?
A Talmudic Tale
The problematic nature of the episode is captured in the following story relayed in the Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 91a:
שוב פעם אחת באו בני מצרים לדון עם ישראל לפני אלכסנדרוס מוקדון, אמרו לו: הרי הוא אומר "וה' נתן את חן העם בעיני מצרים וישאלום" – תנו לנו כסף וזהב שנטלתם ממנו.
On another occasion the Egyptians came in a lawsuit against the Jews before Alexander of Macedonia. They said to him: "Behold it is written: 'And Hashem gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians and they lent them'. Return to us the gold and silver which you took from them!"
According to the Gemara, hundreds of years after the event, the Egyptians were still upset about the property that was taken from them and demanded repayment. Were they justified in their claims?