By Jim Rogozen, Jan 28, 2023
Words have power: they can enlighten; they can mislead. They can sustain old beliefs; they can also create new perceptions.
A verse in today’s parsha launched a thousand commentaries, two law-suits, a slew of anti-Semitic comments, and created a holiday for women.
At the burning bush, God gives Moshe a preview of coming attractions. He said, “I see your suffering, but know that I will take you out of Egypt. I will cause the Egyptians to see you favorably; you will not go out empty handed. People will borrow things from their neighbors and empty out Egypt.”
In our parsha, in Exodus 11:2 Moshe tells the people what had been predicted earlier and instructs them:
ְיִשְׁאֲל֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ | מֵאֵ֣ת רֵעֵ֗הוּ וְאִשָּׁה֙ מֵאֵ֣ת רְעוּתָ֔הּ כְּלֵי־כֶ֖סֶף וּכְלֵ֥י זָהָֽב
“Everyone should borrow, each man from his friend and each woman from her friend, silver vessels and golden vessels.”
The Israelites do that, and when it was time to leave…
וַֽיהֹוָ֞ה נָתַ֨ן אֶת־חֵ֥ן הָעָ֛ם בְּעֵינֵ֥י מִצְרַ֖יִם וַיַּשְׁאִל֑וּם וַיְנַצְּל֖וּ אֶת־מִצְרָֽיִם
The Lord gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and they borrowed from them, and they emptied out Egypt.
The verb שאל is tricky. It can mean to ask or to borrow.
The problem, though, isn’t really the word, but the intention. You see, Moshe misled Pharoah, telling him that his people were going out to the wilderness for a short holiday. Did the Israelites know it was for longer? If so, their request to borrow items was also misleading.
And if the Egyptians knew, then why would they happily hand over their valuable possessions?
Maybe it was because of what God predicted:
וַֽיהֹוָ֞ה נָתַ֨ן אֶת־חֵ֥ן הָעָ֛ם בְּעֵינֵ֥י מִצְרַ֖יִם
The Lord gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians.
Did God exert some kind of mind control over them? Did God help them see the people in a different light?
Another question to answer is why God wanted the Israelites to take all this stuff.
The two most common explanations for gathering these objects are:
#1: this was compensation or reparations for the work the Israelites did.
This reason is backed up in Dvarim 15:13 which tells us what is owed to a slave who is set free:
דברים טו:יג וְכִי תְשַׁלְּחֶנּוּ חָפְשִׁי מֵעִמָּךְ לֹא תְשַׁלְּחֶנּוּ רֵיקָם.
Deut 15:13 When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed: 15:14 Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you.
Reason #2: this was all part of a divine plan, way back in Genesis 15:14, when God explained to Avram that his descendants would be many, but at some point they would be enslaved. However …
וְגַם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ דָּן אָנֹכִי וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל.
Gen 15:14 But I [God] will execute judgment on the nation they [Israel] shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.
So asking/borrowing, even deceiving Pharoah and the Egyptian citizens? This was all part of a larger plan.
These two rationales – wages owed and divine plan- however, didn’t sit well with everyone.
In the commentary to Megillat Taanit we learn that in the time of Alexander the Great, Egyptians brought a lawsuit against the Jews, claiming they owed them for all the things they stole during the Exodus. The Jewish community was defended by a sage named Gevihah ben Pesisa, who argued the opposite:
“For 430 years, 600,000 Israelites were enslaved by you. You need to give each one of them 200 zuz per year [of service], which amounts to 860,000,000 zuz per person. Then we will give you back your property.”
And in 2003, Nabil Hilmi, dean of the law school at Egypt’s University of Al-Zaqaziq, prepared a lawsuit against “all the Jews of the world,” claiming the Israelites stole more than 1,000 trillion tons of gold during the Exodus. Hilmi, trying to be fair, said he was willing to amortize this debt over a millennium, so long as cumulative interest was calculated and paid.
Not in a trial, but in her commentary, Nechama Leibowitz countered by suggesting that there is no unfairness here because the Israelites most likely left property behind in Egypt, something that certainly happened in later expulsions.
So, the meaning or intention or ethical nature of שאל – taking possession of Egyptian stuff – has been, and will continue to be, seen from different perspectives.
Which leaves us to deal with this phrase: וַיְנַצְּל֖וּ אֶת־מִצְרָֽיִם
The Israelites emptied out or despoiled Egypt.
וַיְנַצְּל֖ו is from the verb נצל.
It’s tempting to think of it in its modern meaning: to take advantage. Or in the way this particular verse is most often translated – to empty out – but I’d like to introduce you to a very different understanding…
For that we jump to Exodus 32, the story of the Golden Calf.
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֲלֵהֶם֙ אַֽהֲרֹ֔ן פָּֽרְקוּ֙ נִזְמֵ֣י הַזָּהָ֔ב אֲשֶׁר֙ בְּאָזְנֵ֣י נְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם בְּנֵיכֶ֖ם וּבְנֹֽתֵיכֶ֑ם וְהָבִ֖יאוּ אֵלָֽי:
Aaron said to them, “Remove the golden earrings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them [those earrings] to me.” (32:2).
According to Tradition, the women refused to donate their jewelry to make this idol. Why?
In Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer 45:4 we read:
ולא קבלו עליהם ליתן נזמיהן לבעליהן אלא אמרו להם אתם רוצים לעשות שקוץ ותועבה שאין בו כח להציל
לא שמעו להם
“You want to make this abomination, this detestable thing that has no power to save you?! No way, no how!
Notice the Hebrew word in this quote – להציל – to save.
להציל – is the הפעיל form of the shoresh (or root letters) נצל which gives us the word וַיְנַצְּל֖ו
Some form of the root נצל appears 212 times in the Bible. In 210 cases it means to save. The other 2 cases are when the verb is in the pee’ayl form, which occurs 17 of those 212 times. In these two cases (Chronicles and Samuel) it does mean to take things, but these were cases when the soldiers redeemed the spoils of war that were taken from the Israelites, and in one of those cases it meant saving people as well as things.
So what about our verse in Shemot?
While almost all translations of וַיְנַצְּל֖ו imply clearing out, as a negative action, it just doesn’t fit in with the dynamic and tone of “asking” or “borrowing”… especially given the good will of the Egyptians. Which is exactly, I believe, the backdrop to the Midrash about the women refusing to hand over their jewelry.
The women were not only rejecting the idolatry of the Golden Calf; they were also emphasizing that the jewelry they had collected in Egypt represented something very special: the good wishes of their Egyptians neighbors. Our Tradition backs that up with the Midrash that during the plague of darkness the Egyptians were helpless but no Israelite took advantage of them. Rabbi Shimshon Raphel Hirsch wrote that “the first foundation stone of the prosperity of God’s people was to be acquired through recognition of their moral greatness by those who had once despised them.” He even says the word וַיְנַצְּל֖וּ means that the Egyptians initiated the collection of their own treasures and gave them to the Israelites.
The women’s response was about acknowledging the redemptive nature of the Egyptians’ gifts, which led to a departure based on appreciation; not deception or resentment. It also ties in with the later commandment in Dvarim 23:8 not to hate the Egyptians.
So how did this amazing episode end up for the women?
Orach Chaim #417 Shulkhan Arukh
אראש חודש מותר בעשיית מלאכה בוהנשי’ שנוהגות שלא לעשות בו מלאכה הוא מנהג טוב
It is permissible to work on Rosh Hodesh, but the custom is for women NOT to work…this is a good custom.
In the Magen Avraham commentary we read:
:לפי שלא פרקוּ נזמיהם לעגל ניתן להם ראש חוֹדש ליוֹם טוֹב
Because they didn’t turn over their nose rings (to make) the Golden Calf, Rosh Hodesh was given to them as a Yom Tov.
Not only that, but according to Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer we read
נתן להן הקדוש ברוך הוא שכרן בעולם הזה
ונתן להן שכר לעולם הבא
…this reward continues in the world to come.
The prooftext? They (women) are destined to be renewed like the New Moons, as it is said, “He satisfies your years with good things; so that your youth is renewed like the eagle” (Ps. 103:5).
An updated view of history allows us to refresh the computer screens of the present. We can laugh at the ancient lawsuits, defend against negative interpretations of the story, and be reminded every Rosh Hodesh (if not every day) that women are so much wiser than men.
I’d like to suggest that there is even more we can do.
We can do more to ensure the rights and dignity of all women, throughout the world.
We can do more to recognize the well-meaning citizens who, living under oppressive rule, still helped Jews and others when they were being threatened.
We can do more to appreciate the rays of light in our society: good people, with good intentions, who are doing good things, even when surrounded by forces of darkness that aim to instill hate and fear.
Let’s remember that when we can recognize the humanity of others, and work together to connect and to heal, there will be a critical mass of people who have the כח להציל …the power to save, restore, and preserve humanity and the world.
Keyn yehi ratzon.