Parashat Bo 5781
The case for reparations for African-American slavery is not new. The author Ta-Nehisi Coates cites the 1783 case of Belinda Royall, kidnapped from present day Ghana and held as a slave for 5 decades. When her master fled to Britain during the war she petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for reparations from her captors estate. We do not know what arguments she used to convince the court of her case but I could imagine that she used the Bible to make her case. In our Parasha, Shemot, Chapter 11 vs1-4 it is stated:
G-d said to Moshe: One more plague shall I bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt, after that he shall send you forth from here. When he sends you forth from here it will be complete. Please speak now in the ears of the people. Let each man request his fellow and each woman from her fellow, silver and gold vessels. G-d granted the people favor in the eyes of Egypt. Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the eyes of the servants of Pharaoh and in the eyes of the people.
And Shemot 12 vs 35/36:
The children of Israel carry out the word of Moses. They requested from the Egyptians silver vessels, gold vessels and garments. G-d gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians and they granted their request and so they “emptied” Egypt
Even though I could have looked at the role of Pharaoh and his hardening of the heart, especially in light of the last few weeks I decided instead to focus on the passages above, namely the “request” for gold and silver vessels and garments from the Egyptians. Every year when we get to this passage, I wonder what really happened here and I know I am not the first one to do so Why did they ask for this gold, what were they going to do with it and was there possibly a deeper meaning attached to this action.
The first step is to look at the Hebrew words. In 11/2 The Torah uses the word v’yishalu from the root sha’al meaning to ask request or borrow. The same words are used in the second passage, va’yashilum: and they granted their request.
Many of the commentators say that the Egyptians were compliant and even gave more than they were asked for. Rashi cites the Mechilta that if a Jew asked for one item the Egyptians would insist that they take two. The Rashbam says that the Egyptians made lavish gifts because G-d “gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians” They made gifts, not loans
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has an interesting take on all of this. First, he asks, why did G-d insist that the Israelites take silver and gold. They were in a hurry, leaving Egypt to go to the desert, after all it adds a lot of weight to their luggage, and what were they going to do with it?
Did G-d really think ahead and pre-ordained the making of the Golden calf? Now we have to remember that G-d already at the burning bush referred to the gold and silver” I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people and you shall venitzaltem, meaning “plunder” the Egyptians”. In fact this whole passage appears three times in the book of Shemot.
Rabbi Sacks then quotes from the end of Devarim, the passage about letting slaves go free after six years “when you release him do not let him go empty handed Give to him as G-d has blessed you Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress Remember you were slaves and G-d has redeemed you. So there seems to be a deeper meaning to the taking/giving of gifts. Again, from Devarim ,23:7 Do not hate the Egyptian for he is your brother, you were a stranger in his land. So, Moses insist that the Israelites do not hate the Egyptians. Why? Can a people be truly free if they are driven by hate or resentment? and therein lies the meaning of the gifts.
It is a way of marking the absence of resentment, it is not to compensate for the harm inflicted but the separation is done with some sense of goodwill. With some symbolic compensation, we can start over without anger or humiliation. For someone who receives gifts it is harder to hate.
Benno Jacob, a early 20th century commentator says that the gold and silver given (Not lent) by the Egyptians constituted a protest against the policies of the Pharaoh, In fact Philo Judaeus the Alexandrian from the first century believed the gold and silver taken was a just payment for the suffering they had endured and for the wages they were never paid.
This was a sentiment also expressed by Umberto Cassuto: “they were entitled to their freedom and at the same time a just farewell payment. Justice demanded it”
So how did the Egyptians really feel about this? We know very little. Harvey Fields cites that during Alexander the Great’s rule many Egyptians complained about the Israelites “taking their riches” even stealing from them. They cited the Torah as proof.
Gavila ben Pasisa demanded a debate with Alexander. Gavila countered Alexander’s arguments saying that the Israelites worked in Egypt more than 400 years and thus were entitled to compensation. According to Talmud Sanhedrin 91, the Egyptians could not find a counterargument after arguing for 3 days.
So, can monetary compensation set wrongs right? It is a question many nations have grappled with and we here in the US are still grappling with. The Germans after WW2 and the Holocaust agreed to compensate the State of Israel for the loss of lives and property at a price of 1.5 Billion dollars to be used for compensation to the heirs of victims and the reintegration of the victims. There were many debates within Israel and the Jewish community whether reparations should be accepted or even asked for. Ben Gurion was for, Begin was against. In the end the Knesset voted to accept the proposal. Can money ever set wrongs right especially in regard to human life? The Ramban explains that the gold and silver gave to the Israelites was an “atonement”. The gifts of the Egyptians were an admission of guilt and a request for pardon. Maybe the Israelites were ready to move on from their ordeal and not forget the past but instead learn from it and build a better future.
Aryeh Bernstein's article ”The Torah case for reparations” cites a prophesy by Ezekiel that the Israelites received dignity and a place among the nations because of reparations. So maybe it is incumbent on us Jews to see to it that other nations receive reparations for the indignities they have endured over the centuries as well.