Questions and Suggested Answers
Based on the writings of Nehama Leibowitz
I. Speak now in the ears of the people
The school of Yannai stated - Na is an expression of request. Said the Holy One blessed be He to Moses: Please keep on reminding Israel to ask the Egyptians for gold and silver ware so that that righteous man (Abraham) shall not say: his promise to “serve and afflict them” he did keep but not that of “afterwards they shall leave with great wealth.” They answered him: Just let us get out. The situation may be compared to a man who was in prison. People said to him: Tomorrow you will be released and be given plenty of money. He answered them: Just let me get out today; I don’t ask for anything more!
(a) What anomaly in the wording prompted the above Midrash?
In issuing the command to Moshe that Moshe speak to the children of Israel regarding the valuables to be received from the Egyptians, God used the introductory words ...daber na. Normally in stating a command the Torah does not contain the word na which has a the meaning of “now” or “please”. Rashi cites the Talmudic explanation that na in this context must mean “please”. The above Talmudic statement explaining the depressed state of mind of the Jewish slaves makes us realize the need for the extra word.
(b) Several commentators ask the following question: What kind of argument is “that the righteous man (Abraham) should not say”? Surely even if he had no complaint to Make it was still God’s duty to keep his promise?
It is axiomatic that God always keeps his word ...The Eternal One of Israel does not lie... (Samuel I, 15-29). Thus if God promised Abraham that his descendants would leave the land of their affliction with great wealth, so it would be. The question is how they would come into possession of this wealth. Would there be an appearance of unethical means to achieve a deserved compensation? If the Jewish slaves would have singly helped themselves to Egyptian wealth, wouldn’t we be hearing the echo of Abraham’s plaint to God “shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly”? Is it not possible that by arbitrarily appropriating Egyptian wealth that there would be a seeming miscarriage of justice and lack of moral uprightness in that due process was not employed? Were all Egyptians equal in their persecution of Jews? In the case of Sodom and Gemorrah’s pending destruction, Abraham argued from the point of view of human justice. “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” The fact that the Israelite slaves confronted their Egyptian neighbors in a civil manner and the neighbors responded of their own free will, removes any semblance of impropriety. At the same time the evils perpetrated against a nation enslaved for over two hundred years were redressed.
It is interesting to note that the above Rabbinic comment refers to Abraham as “that righteous man” (zaddik) rather than by his name, because the issue here is one of righteousness (zedek); i.e. appropriating wealth by just means.
Prepared by: Rabbi Mordechai Spiegelman veteran yeshiva educator (USA) now residing in Jerusalem