Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, January 20, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland
In this morning’s reading there is one verse that I have always found curious.
And the LORD had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians.
The word that the JPS translation renders as “stripped” - VaYinatzlu – comes from a meaning of ‘delivering from’ or ‘removing from’ according the Biblical Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon. So, in its causative form, it can mean delivering from enemies – that is ‘to save’. Or, it can mean to take away, or plunder. Most commentaries agree that, in this case, the meaning of the verse “Vayinatzlu et Mitzrayim” is that as the Israelites leave, they take spoil of the Egyptians, they plunder, or as Rashi explains, “they emptied them out”.
In the kind of movies that I enjoy, where the bad guys are evil, so evil that the viewer wishes the most horrific punishment and suffering on them and is rewarded with such defeat over evil - think Lord of the Rings where the Gollum ends up melting in the river of fire - a scene in which after generations of slavery the Jews get revenge by cleaning out the Egyptians must have been very satisfying, especially if you were a Jew living in a climate of oppression close to slavery in medieval Europe.
But this explanation always bothered me. It seems gratuitous, the Egyptians have been suffering because of their tyrannical and petty Pharaoh through 10 plagues, culminating in the loss of their children. And we are supposed to feel good about taking all their stuff? So I have favored the rendering of the verse using the meaning to save or deliver – that is by taking these items – gold, silver, textiles – from the Egyptians the Israelites save the Egyptians by enabling the Egyptians to do teshuvah, at least partially.
That is a nice drash but finding warrant for it is tough. No medieval or modern Bible commentary translates or explains the term this way. Except ! Finally I found a comment by Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, a 20th century rabbi from Lithuania and Israel. In Rabbi Sorotzkin’s comment he cautions that we should not read this verse as Israel gloating over its victory. Rather he gives two possible explanations for the term, both of them indicating a kind of act of salvation, as Egypt was simply repaying the people of Israel for exploitation and ingratitude.
Basing his comment on a passage from the Talmud he explains that Joseph had saved the Egyptian people from starvation and his Pharaoh had invited Joseph’s family to live there. Yet a generation later, the Egyptians enslaved the Jews and never paid Joseph and his descendants their appropriate inheritance. Or he suggests after several hundred years of free labor, the Egyptians were paying the Jews all the back pay they owed them. In both cases, Israel’s stripping the Egyptians was an act of restorative justice.
Rabbi David Greenstein, a colleague of mine, notes that this morning’s portion offers us two different types of leave taking from Egypt. The first in narrative form, the second in ritual instruction.
In chapter 12:31-42, the children of Israel are pushed out of Egypt by Pharaoh’s edict after the final plague “Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the LORD as you said!” but even more powerfully, by the Egyptian people, themselves. Overwhelmed by the death all around them, the Egyptians beseech the Israelites to leave. They give them all sorts of goods for the journey. Rabbi Greenspoon suggests that there was division between the cruel Pharaoh and at least some of his people, such as the previous Pharaoh’s daughter, who were not bound by hatred but rather were complicit due to their own fear living under an authoritarian regime. They may have even had positive relations with the Israelites, as the two cultures were neighbors for hundreds of years.
Thus, we can see this moment as one in which the two peoples engage in leave-taking from each other. These Egyptians send the Israelites off with gifts either of payment or gratitude. This narrative version of the Exodus event highlights the role of the Egyptians in sending us forth. Rabbi Greenspoon writes, “We leave, carrying on our backs, a very complicated bundle of feelings and memories toward these non-Hebrew neighbors of ours. The first Exodus tells of our leaving the past behind, with the remnants of that past upon our shoulders. (Literally, for the cloaks that the Torah informs us with which they carried their matzot on their backs are given to them by the Egyptians.) We guard those memories “throughout all our generations.”
Following this section, we have another description of our leaving Egypt at the conclusion of a set of instructions by God regarding the ritual of the Paschal sacrifice. Once again we see a distinction between Hebrews and non-Hebrews this time recognized and ordered through a set of regulations for this commemorative ceremony. In the narrative the Israelites experience the abrupt cessation of slavery, impelled by the strong burst of activity by the Egyptians. In the ritual section, the emphasis will be on the Divine role in taking us out of bondage. It begins: The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: This is the law of the Passover offering: No outsider shall eat of it.” It specifies rules and regulations regarding the preparation and eating of the offering. And concludes “That very day the Lord freed the Israelites from the land of Egypt, troop by troop.” Not the Pharaoh, not Moses, but the Lord.
The narrative version also sets forth a ceremony for the present that points to the future. It imagines an Israelite society that will finally reach its homeland. In that homeland Israel will also have to deal with strangers in its midst, just as the Egyptians had to deal with us.
But instead of the long delayed good will of the Egyptians, or if one prefers, the ransom paid by them out of fear and anxiety, the Torah instructs future Israelite settlements that “There shall be one law (torah) for the citizen and for the alien who resides among you.” (Ex. 12:49)
Richard Elliott Friedman, professor of Bible at the University of Georgia, writes about this verse: “This is the first occurrence of the word ‘Torahʼ in the Torah. It is impressive beyond description that its first appearance is in a verse declaring that a foreigner residing among the people of Israel has the same legal status as an Israelite.” (Commentary on the Torah, p. 212)
This insight from Professor Friedman and Rabbi Greenspoon is very important. They are suggesting that, perhaps due to their experience with leave taking from Egyptian neighbors, or due explicitly to a regulation from God perhaps to distinguish us from our neighbors, the Israelites are not totally free from slavery until they are able to create a society in which there is some level of equality and equanimity between Israel and foreigners who live in their midst.
This is a very significant lesson for us at this moment. Because our nation’s government has just been shut down because the majority of the party in power in Congress and the President of the United States refused to accept a compromise on immigration and border security that Democrats and Republican legislators had agreed upon. As a result, almost a million individuals, brought into the United States illegally as children but raised as Americans, knowing only this country as their country, unfamiliar with their country of origin, working, serving this nation as loyal Americans are threatened with deportations and family break ups. These individuals known as Dreamers, after the name of the act that stayed deportation of such individuals, now live in a constant state of anxiety. Under Barack Obama, they were given an opportunity to remain in this country, not as citizens but as lawfully present – they are truly the ger toshav, resident aliens, in Biblical speak. The hope was that eventually Congress would get their act together, create a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would determine a permanent status for these young people. But that did not happen and now this country is on the verge of officially deporting the Dreamers. Pictures of families being separated, tears as family members are expelled will be on the news. There will be no gift giving as the Egyptians sent off the Israelites. There will be no acts of redemption on our nation’s part.
Somehow our ancestors learned from their experience that treating foreigners in their land fairly was the right thing to do. We are all descendants of immigrants, let’s hope that we learn from our ancestors’ experience as well.