Parshas Shmos

Parshas Shemos
The Ruse of History

By: Michoel Lipman



Several years ago, Dr. Nabil Hilmi, Dean of the Law Faculty at al-Zaqaziq University in Egypt, proposed filing a lawsuit against the whole of the Jewish people, claiming the current value of property that the Jews took from Egypt at the time of the Exodus. At five-percent interest, he estimated the worth to exceed 1 trillion tons of gold.
When devising his nefarious lawsuit, Dr. Hilmi was probably unfamiliar with the precedent set by his Egyptian forbearers in a case recounted by the gemara in Sanhedrin 91a. Alexander the Great adjudicated a trial in which a group of Egyptian plaintiffs claimed they were entitled to recover the wealth removed from Egypt by the Jewish nation at the time of the Exodus. Humble and wise Geviha ben Pesisa defended the Jewish people, arguing that if one chose to learn from the Torah of the wealth removed from Egypt, then one would be logically compelled to also learn from the Torah that the Jews were entitled to receive unpaid back-wages for years of slavery, an amount considerably greater than the value of what was removed when the Jews left Egypt. His refutation and its ominous implications prompted the prosecution to flee town, leaving behind their sown f
ields and planted vineyards.

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The understanding of the gemara in Sanhedrin is that the Jewish people were undeniably entitled to “empty Egypt” in reparation for their years in servitude. Yet a close look at the relevant verse in Shemos 1:11 reveals that the Jews were enslaved not to the average Egyptian citizen, but to Pharaoh himself. What right did the Jews have to take the belongings of the local Egyptian population, when it was Pharaoh who commandeered their labor without pay? And if we accept that the Jews were indeed entitled to the wealth of Egypt, why were they enjoined specifically to “borrow” their booty, rather than to simply take possession in good conscience, as described in Shemos 3:22: “Each woman shall request from her neighbor and from the one who lives in her house silver vessels, golden vessels and garments…”? For that matter, why did the Jews mislead the Egyptians into thinking that they were to leave Egypt for only three days (“Please let us go on a three-day journey in the Wilderness…”, Shemos 3:18), when the reality was that they were departing forever?

With regard to taking wealth from the Egyptian citizenry, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (Meshech Chochma) points to the Torah’s meticulous description of Yosef as viceroy over Egypt during the famine. Yosef steered the entire Egyptian economy into feudalism; all money and land became Pharaoh’s. The greater purpose behind that early economic reform was to ensure that when redemption called, the Jewish people would receive their “back pay” for years of enslavement by Pharaoh. The proverbial table had been set in advance: that which was taken by the Jews belonged to Pharaoh – the debtor – not to the citizens of Egypt.
That being said, since the Jews were entitled to take their due, why call it “borrowing”? The reason gets to the heart of what the redemption was all about. Explains Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven (Ran of medieval Spain), when G-d revealed Himself in redemption, the greatest glory of all was that nothing in the world appeared random or haphazard. Since the Egyptians had thrown Jewish babies into the Nile, at the Red Sea G-d sought to punish the perpetrators in kind. They would throw themselves into the waters; they themselves would experience a similar fate to their victims – literally, “measure for measure”.
Why would a defeated Egyptian army want to regroup and chase its quarry willingly into the sea? It’s human nature. Had the Jews declared point-blank that they were leaving Egypt for good and absconded with the loot, the Egyptians would have conceded defeat. (“The Jews and their Lord are too strong for us.”) Presenting the Exodus as a three-day vacation – presenting the stripping of Egypt as a grand-scale loan – suggested weakness on the part of the Jews. (“If they knew they were in a position of strength, they would have been bold enough to just tell us they were leaving.”)
Once the Egyptians realized that the Jews were bolting, presumably scared and vulnerable, they instinctively gave chase – running straight to their demise. The Exodus, in other words, comprised a ruse engineered by the Almighty Himself with the specific purpose of goading Egypt into fulfilling the Divine Plan – through its own free will.
Remarkably, as the Jewish people left Egypt, they were still not fully aware that they were leaving the country for good. Even Moshe Rabbeinu may have been kept in the dark, according to Ran. Ultimately, the redemption was not finally understood or appreciated until all eyes beheld the Egyptian army drowned in the Red Sea, “And [the Jews] had faith in Hashem and in Moshe, His servant” (Shemos 14:31). The glory of G-d shone forth in the revelation of the intentionality and perfection of His judgment.
In modern times, it can be especially difficult to ascertain Divine intent, to appreciate the value of the vicissitudes of everyday existence. This is the nature of galus, of exile. The lack of clarity is actually a mask – a ruse – and revelation of G-d’s glory through vivid perception of His perfect planning and judgment will be part of our experience of redemption – just a heartbeat away.

About the Author

Lipman is founder and editor of Chareidio, a telephone-based news
service, and co-founder of Power2B, Inc., a technology company
developing innovative touch screens. An alumnus of Ohr Somayach and
Orchos Chaim yeshivos,
Michoel graduated with a BA in music, and spent 15 years as a Certified
Financial Planner and asset management specialist. He now lives in
Jerusalem with his wife and children.
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