Parashat Vaera: Innocent victims?

Duplicity and thievery are prohibited even in order to fulfill a divine prophecy.

The first three portions of the Book of Exodus describe the bitter servitude of the Israelites in Egypt, their repeated requests to leave the country of their travail, the Ten Plagues wrought by God to force the hand of the despotic Pharaoh, and the slaves' eventual liberation from foreign oppression. From this perspective, Pharaoh is evil incarnate and the Israelites are innocent victims. However, the Bible itself records that from the very beginning of the dialogue between Pharaoh and Moses, there was a degree of deception on the part of the Israelites - a deception which seems to have been orchestrated by the God of justice Himself! We read last week how God commanded Moses to "…go with the elders of Israel to the king of Egypt and say to him: 'the Lord God of the Hebrews manifested Himself to us. Now therefore let us go a distance of three days into the wilderness and sacrifice to the Lord our God'" (Exodus 3:18). The Hebrews request only a three-day "UJA mission" - and then, when they finally are pushed out by Pharaoh after the tenth plague, they leave for good, which was apparently their plan all along (Exodus 3:10). So why the three-day request? Could it be that the reason for this duplicity was to be able to "borrow" vessels of gold and silver from the Egyptians for their desert sacrifice service? Were they "setting up" the Egyptians to believe they would return after three days and give back the treasure - something which they never intended to do? Had the Israelites planned to steal the Egyptians' wealth at the behest of God Himself (Exodus 3:21-23)? If so, the Hebrews were not such lily-white victims after all! Don Yitzhak Abarbanel, the late 15th-century biblical commentator, maintains that what they actually told Pharaoh was that they would leave Egypt for good, but would begin their journey in the desert a three-day journey away from the country which had enslaved them. Those who lent them the gold and silver vessels, however, certainly didn't understand it that way, and were certain that the Hebrews would return to pay them back. Since it seems apparent from the text that the Hebrews didn't disabuse them of their expectation - and probably even fostered it - the moral problem remains. Most commentators suggest that the Hebrews came up with the three-day ruse in order to fulfill the divine promise to Abraham: "Your seed shall be strangers in a land which is not theirs, and they shall enslave and afflict them. But I shall then judge the nation whom they served, and they [your seed] shall go out [of that country] with great wealth" (Gen. 15:13, 14). However, duplicity and thievery are prohibited even in order to fulfill a divine prophecy. I once suggested that the gold and silver the Hebrews carried when they left Egypt was not the result of deception or thievery, but only a small portion of what they deserved as payment for centuries of forced labor. It may best be compared to the reparations that Holocaust survivors received from Germany; no amount of money could make up for the burnt remains in the crematoria of Auschwitz and Treblinka, or the Hebrew babies drowned in the Nile. The Ran (Rabbi Nissim ben Reuven of Girona, who lived from 1320 to 1380) in Sermon No. 11 of Drashot, his essays on government and political rule, provides a more profound meaning behind the request for a three-day leave and the borrowing of gold and silver - one that was far greater from a historical and moral perspective than the actual acquisition of wealth. The Hebrews and Egyptians were involved in a clash of two civilizations: the God who created human beings in His image was pitted against the idol Ra, the sun-god who represented domination and enslavement. Thus Moses, the man of justice and freedom for all, was locked in a struggle against Pharaoh, the despot who controlled and enslaved an entire society. God and the Hebrews had to win a decisive victory - and the world had to see that victory - if the concept of freedom was to take root. Had the Israelites merely left Egypt after the plagues, the Egyptians would have said "goodbye and good riddance" and the world would have assumed that Egypt had been struck by a string of natural disasters; there would not necessarily have been any identification made between the plagues and the Israelites in Egypt. But since the Israelites had taken the gold and silver, as soon as they realized that the Hebrews were not returning, the Egyptians pursued them to retrieve their goods. Their three-day "head start" placed the Israelites on the shores of the Reed (Red) Sea, which paralleled the Nile River. When the Egyptians pursued the Hebrews into the sea and drowned, the world couldn't help but recognize the measure-for-measure justice; Hebrew babies had been drowned in the Nile. This is precisely what Jethro understood when he came to praise Moses and his God: "Now I know that the Lord is greater than any other power, since that which they [the Egyptians] did with malice and forethought [in the Nile River] came upon them [in the Reed Sea]" (Exodus 18:11). This is what the Jews sang in their Song at the Sea: "The nations heard and trembled, a shuddering grasped the inhabitants of Philistia…. all the inhabitants of Canaan melted. Fear and terror fell upon them, and with the greatness of Your divine arm they became silent as stone" (Exodus 15: 15, 16). The three-day journey and the gold and silver reparations were what made the world understand that the victory over Egypt was a triumph by the God of justice and freedom. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.