Friday, January 31, 2020 /5 Shevat, 5780
Parashat Bo Exodus 10:1-13:16
As we move further into the story of the exodus, Pharaoh’s heart continues to harden. Each time Moses asked Pharaoh to free the Israelites, Pharaoh declined. As plagues cause hardship for the Egyptians, Pharaoh insisted that he would release the Israelites as soon as God ended the plague. Predictably, Pharaoh refused to free the Israelites each time a plague subsided. To the contrary, Pharaoh’s callousness only grew.
In this week’s Torah portion, we learn that the average Egyptian had a different experience. After the final plague, the Egyptians looked upon the Israelites favorably. (Exodus 3:22, 11:3, 12:36) As the Israelites prepared to leave Egypt, they asked Egyptians for gold and silver. The Egyptians overwhelmingly complied with this request. The Egyptians gave lavish gifts (Rashbam), and even forced valuables on the Israelites (Or Hahayim). According to Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, the Egyptians gave far more than what was asked of them. When the Israelites asked for one of something, they gave two.
The Egyptians’ generosity was stunning and so contrary to the actions of the Pharaoh that it questions our very assumptions about Egyptian society at the time. Perhaps the Pharaoh’s cruelty was not a reflection on its people after all.
Rabbis come up with any number of speculations about why the Egyptians gave up their gold and silver so freely. Perhaps after the final plague, which took so many Egyptian lives, the Egyptians were willing to give Israelites anything to ensure that another plague would not transpire. Perhaps the Egyptians recognized how terribly the Israelites had been treated all this time. Filled with remorse, they wanted to do an act of kindness by giving the Israelites jewels to use in establishing their free nation.
My favorite explanation comes from first century historian Josephus, who suggests that that some Egyptians “gave out of good neighborliness and friendship they had for them.” The Egyptians gave because of the positive relationships that blossomed between Egyptian and Israelite people, even under the hardship of Pharaoh’s rule. Although their actions could never make up for the cruelty of Israelite oppression, they went a long way to healing the two nations. Pharaoh’s hardened heart led to hardship. Communal relationships led to some sort of healing. Despite everything the Israelites went through, they could not bring themselves to hate the Egyptians because of their generosity in the end. It is on the merit of these Egyptians that the Torah teaches, “You shall not abhor an Egyptian for you were a stranger in his land.” (Deuteronomy 23:8)
Rabbi Cassi Kail