Taking Gold and Silver from Egyptians
Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16 )
In the aftermath of World War II, Germany offered to pay reparations to victims of the Nazi regime. This offer was met by an incredibly heated debate in Israel. In fact, the controversy was so great that there was actually speculation in the Israeli media that acceptance of the reparations would cause a civil war.
When Prime Minister Ben Gurion ultimately agreed to accept the reparations, riots took place and there was a march on the Knesset which resulted in the Knesset building being stoned. Though peace and order was eventually restored, it is clear that for many Israelis at the time it was despicable to think that any "blood money" should be accepted.
A similar phenomenon is found in this week's Torah portion, Bo. The Jewish people are being led out of Egypt to freedom, but before their departure, God tells Moses to encourage each Jew to take from his Egyptian neighbor vessels of silver and vessels of gold. (see Exodus 11:2)
There are two puzzling issues raised by this verse. First, since the Jews would be traveling into the desert, why did they need gold and silver? Second, why did the Jews have to be "encouraged" to take these vessels?
In answer to the first question, Rashi explains that a promise had been made centuries earlier to the patriarch Abraham: After his descendants would suffer many years of bondage in Egypt, they would be freed, and in the process, they would despoil the Nile Kingdom of much of its wealth.
A fascinating Midrash describes why this despoiling of Egypt was fair and proper. Thousands of years later, the Egyptians came before Alexander the Great and registered a claim against the Jewish people, demanding that they should be compensated for all the wealth that the Israelites had seized from their forefathers a millennium earlier. In response to this claim, Gevia ben Psesia, acting as the Jews' defense attorney, noted that the Israelites had not received any wages for all the centuries they toiled as slaves in Egypt. Thus, justice demanded that the Jewish people be granted a form of reparations - i.e. compensation for the exploitation they had undergone at the hands of the ancient Egyptians.
But this brings us to the second question: If the Jews had legitimate claims to Egyptian wealth, then why did Moses have to encourage them to take it?
One explanation is that the Israelites were so anxious to escape the misery of Egypt, that they didn't want to stay around in order to enrich themselves. When a person is in great pain, his focus is exclusively on ending that suffering - and not on the acquisition of wealth.
Furthermore, the Israelites feared that such an action could provoke their former masters into pursuing them, as they made their way out of the Nile Kingdom.
Oznaim L'Torah, a modern commentator, offers a very different explanation. As victims of two centuries of unspeakable horrors, the Jews simply abhorred having contact with anything connected to Egypt.
Additionally, they did not want their seizure of Egypt's wealth to be seen as some type of "quid pro" for all the suffering they had endured. Thus Moses had to encourage them to take this property - in order to fulfill the Almighty's promise to Abraham.
This reluctance to take any money from the hands of their murderous exploiters is an issue that was tragically duplicated by the Jews in Europe some three millennia later.