Parshat Bo: Can I ask a favour?

Parshat Bo: Can I ask a favour?

Rabbi Michael Laitner is Director of Education for the United Synagogue in London and Assistant Rabbi at Finchley Synagogue (Kinloss).  He studied at Yeshivat Hamivtar and received his rabbinical ordination from the Straus Seminary in 2003. 

It is the night that the Jews are leaving Egypt in a hurry, amidst abundant miracles! A dislocated Egyptian society has broken down and Egyptian firstborns lie dead around the country whilst God leads His people out of Egypt. Yet, in the midst of this, something surprising happens. 

We appear to ask the Egyptians to do us a favour, a big favour!

Not just a final cup of coffee before we leave town, but something which cleans the Egyptians out and gives us a lot to schlepp into the desert!

The Torah tells us that, “the Bnei Yisrael did as Moshe instructed, and they asked [or possibly requested to borrow from the Egyptians] [for] silver utensils, gold utensils and clothes. And God gave the people favour in the eyes of the Egyptians who agreed to give or [possibly lend] – and the people emptied out Egypt!” (Shemot 12: 37-28).

It is almost impossible to imagine this scene.  The Egyptians who, as described in verse 33, could not wait to see the back of us, were patiently prepared to ‘lend’ us (according to one way of reading the text) their most valuable items – with God’s active intervention – even though there barely seems any possibility that we would ever return these.

Rashi, quoting the Midrash (Mechilta Pischa 13), the religious messages the Talmudic Rabbis took from the Torah, only emphasises the point, by noting one particular view in the Mechilta, that of Rabbi Natan, which states that the Egyptians even gave us items that we did not ask for!

What are we to learn from this extraordinary passage and especially from the Midrashic explanation?

A powerful perspective and answer can be found in a story, another Midrash quoted by the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a-b).  Like all Midrashim, it is to be taken seriously even if not necessarily literally, particularly given questions about its historicity.   

This Midrash relates that, hundreds of years after the Exodus in the time of Alexander the Great, the Egyptians brought a claim against the Jewish people for financial restitution, demanding the return of all the items which they ‘lent’ to us.  For evidence, the Egyptians provided the same verses which we have quoted.  A summons was sent to the Jewish Sages.

The first Jew to respond was an apparently unscholarly person named Geviha ben Pesisa, who did not count himself amongst the Sages.  “Give me permission please,” he asked the Sages, “and I will  debate with the Egyptians. If they prevail, they shall say that they had bested a mere commoner.  But if I succeed, they will have to admit that the Torah of Moshe Rabenu has overcome their claim.”

The Sages consented.

“From where do you bring proof?” Geviha asked the Egyptians in cross-examination, knowing full well what they would say. “From the Torah,” they replied.  “Very well,” said Geviha, “I too shall only bring proof from the Torah, which states the Children of Israel were in Egypt for 430 years. Give us our payment for the 600,000 people whom you cruelly enslaved for 400 years!”

Suddenly, the pendulum had swung the other way! “Respond!” Alexander ordered the Egyptians.  Stunned, the Egyptians asked for three days recess to formulate a response. Ultimately, they fled leaving their fields and orchards.  The end of this passage implies that the Jews were able to take the produce, which was even more appreciated than usual since that year was shemita (a sabbatical year).

The story of Geviha ben Pesisa can therefore be understood to show why we deserved the Egyptian items.

However, one particular question remains.  How might we understand the debate over whether we borrowed or were given the items?

We must look earlier in the Book of Shemot (3:21-22), where the Torah foreshadows what happens in our passage, paying particular attention to the commentary of Rashbam (1085-1158), a grandson of Rashi. 

Rashbam explains, with examples, that the Hebrew verbal root sh-a-l, which is used to describe our request and the Egyptian response, can also be used when a gift is given in full. This, says Rashbam, is the straightforward meaning of the text and a response to any heretics who would presumably wish to deny the justice of our cause in seeking recompense for our servitude.

We were therefore entitled to ask a favour of the Egyptians, and much more besides, given the oppression they had visited upon us.  Doing so, as the verses show us, was therefore a crucial part of the Exodus.

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