Borrowers Must be Choosy

RABBI WAGENSBERG ON PARHAS BO
Borrowers Must be Choosy

Among the many topics contained in this week’s parsha, we find that Hashem commanded Moshe to, “Speak in the ears of the people, let each man request of his fellow, and each woman from her fellow, silver vessels and gold vessels” (Parshas Bo, 11:2).

This instruction was already mentioned to Moshe at the beginning of his aency, by the Burning Bush, when Hashem commanded Moshe to instruct the Jewish people, “V’sha’ala” (Parshas Shemos, 3:22), which means that they should request gold and silver from their Egyptian neighbors prior to leaving Mitzrayim.

The Radak (Rabbenu Dovid Kimchi, 1160-1235, France) defines the word “V’sha’ala” as “borrow” just as we find in Parshas Mishpatim when it says, “And if a man ‘Yishal,’ (will borrow) from his fellow” (22:13). Since the words “Yishal” and V’sha’ala” share the same root, just as “Yishal” means to borrow, so does “V’sha’ala” mean borrow.

This definition raises a question. You see, Hashem never intended the Jews to return the gold and silver that they borrowed. We know this from the verse where Moshe prophetically tells the Jewish people, “For as you have seen Egypt today, you will not see them ever again” (Parshas Beshalach, 14:13). The Egyptian army would drown at sea, and the Jews would never see any Egyptians who were left in the land of Egypt ever again.

If the Jews would never see the Egyptians again, they would never be able to return the silver and gold to them. Therefore, how could Hashem, the paradigm example of truth (Shabbos, chap. 5, “Bameh Biheima”, pg. 55a, Rebbi Chanina), instruct them to borrow gold and silver from the Egyptians if Hashem intended that the Jews would keep the gold and silver for themselves. How could such an honest God tell them to do something that was simply not true?

The Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, 1089-1167, Spain; Parshas Shemos, 3:22) asks this very question when he writes, “There are those who complain and say that our forefathers were robbers.”

The Ibn Ezra (ibid) answers this question by saying, “Hashem created everything. He gives wealth to those whom He chooses, and He takes that wealth away from them and gives it to others as He chooses. This is not evil, because everything belongs to Him.”

Although the Ibn Ezra has shown how our ancestors were not thieves, he has not explained how we were allowed to lie. We still asked the Egyptians to borrow their gold and silver when we had no intention of ever returning it to them. How could we lie?

Rabbenu Bachya (1255-1340, Spain), the Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, 1085-1158, France, Rashi’s grandson), and the Tosafists (Da’as Zikeinim m’Ba’alei Hatosafos, Parshas Shemos, 3:21) answer this question by saying that the word “V’sha’ala” does not mean to borrow. Rather, it means to make a request for a gift. Support of this translation is found in Tehillim where it says, “Sh’al (ask; make a request) of Me and I will give you nations as your inheritance” (2:8). The two words “V’sha’ala and Sh’al” share the same root. Therefore, just as the word “Sh’al” in Tehillim means ask for a gift, so does the word “V’sha’ala” mean ask for a gift.

Therefore, the Jews never asked to borrow the gold and silver. Rather, they requested that the Egyptians give them their gold and silver as gifts. In this way, the Jews never lied. The Rashbam says that this is the primary way of answering the heretics who try to say otherwise.

Although these Rishonim have said that the word “V’sha’ala” means “requesting a gift,” there is a Gemara which indicates that “V’sha’ala” means “borrow.” In Meseches Sanhedrin (chap. 11, “Cheilek”, pg. 91a) it tells us that once upon a time, the Egyptians took the Jewish people to a Greek court before Alexander the Great. The Egyptians said that the Torah itself says, “And Hashem gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, ‘Vayashilum’ (and they loaned them; Parshas Bo, 12:36). Therefore, the Egyptians complained that the Jews owed them the gold and silver that we had borrowed but never returned.

Geviya ben Pesisa (a Jewish Sage who lived in the time of Alexander the Great, who represented the Jewish people in several law suits brought against them) responded that the Egyptians owed the Jewish people back pay for enslaving 600,000 people. The Egyptians imposed forced labor upon the Jews making them build their empire with cities and storehouses. The Jews were never paid for their work and deserved to be compensated.

Payment for 600,000 people over many decades was an astronomical amount of money. So, the Egyptians decided to leave things as they were. The gold and silver that the Jews had taken would serve as their payment.

From this Gemara we see that the word “Vayishalu” means “borrow.” Only then does the dialogue in this Gemara make sense. Only then could the Egyptians make a claim that we must return what we borrowed. Because, if “V’sha’ala” meant “gift,” how could the Egyptians make their claim that the Jews should return the gold and silver? One does not have to return a gift. They would have been kicked out of court. Obviously, “V’sha’ala” means “borrow.” If so, this would contradict the Rishonim who said that it means “gift.” This Gemara would also bring back the question of how the Jews could lie.

The Shvilei Pinchas answers this question by saying that the Egyptians interpreted the word “V’sha’ala” to mean “borrow.” That is how they were able to make a claim against the Jews in front of Alexander the Great. However, the true definition of the word “V’sha’ala,” in this context, means “request a gift.”

At this point, I must add something to the words of the Shvilei Pnchas. In order for all of this to work out, we must say that the Jews spoke to the Egyptians in Lashon Hakodesh (Biblical Hebrew). After all, the Midrash in Vayikra Rabba (Parshas Emor, 32:5) tells us that the Jews in Egypt preserved their Holy tongue. We must also say that, by that time, the Egyptians were somewhat familiar with Hebrew. Perhaps we could offer an analogy which supports this notion.

I just returned to Eretz Yisrael from a trip to the United States. Most of my time was spent in Elizabeth, N.J. In certain neighborhoods within Elizabeth, if you want to get something done properly, speaking Spanish would come in handy because there are so many Spanish speaking people living there who still communicate in Spanish. It is typical for English speakers to pick up some Spanish in order to communicate with the Spanish speaking community. So, just as Americans become somewhat familiar with some Spanish words, so were the Egyptians somewhat familiar with some Hebrew words.

Therefore, the Jewish people must have said something like, “Anachnu Yecholim Lishol?” Although the Jews meant, “Can we receive gifts,” the Egyptians interpreted those words to mean, “Can we borrow?” So, the Jews were not liars. The word “V’sha’ala” meant “request of a gift,” as the Rashbam, Rabbenu Bachya, and the Tosafists said.

Yet, simultaneously, the Egyptians mistakenly thought that the Jews were asking to borrow their silver and gold, which led them to make their claim against the Jews in the time of Alexander the Great.

But there is still a difficulty here. Since the word “V’sha’ala” has two meanings: 1) borrow, and 2) request of a gift, why would Hashem instruct the Jews to use that word? Why not just use a word that clearly means “request of a gift” and circumvent any confusion? For example, just say, “Vayevakshu Ish,” which means, “Let every man request [of his friend gold and silver].” The word “Bakasha” can only mean “request.” “Bakasha” never means “borrow.” So, why use an ambiguous word when we could have spoken in a way which was not misleading?

The following teaching will lay down our fundamental point for today and address the questions that were just raised.

The B’nei Yissasschar (Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, Poland, 1783-1841; Shabbos, 7:17) cites the Chidah (Rabbi Chaim Yoseph Dovid Azulai, 1724 Jerusalem-1806 Italy; Rosh Dovid, Parshas Tetzaveh) who quotes a Midrash in Tanna d’bei Eliyahu Zuta (chap. 19) which says that Ya’akov and Eisav had decided to divide the worlds amongst themselves. Eisav took Olam Hazeh (this lower materialistic world) as his territory, whereas Ya’akov Avinu chose Olam Haba (the upper spiritual world) as his possession.

Now, if Eisav owns Olam Hazeh, how are we, the descendants of Ya’akov, allowed to take physical pleasures from this world, beyond what is absolutely necessary for our survival (Pikuach Nefesh)? The pleasures that we take from this world should constitute theft, because we are stealing from what rightfully belongs to Eisav.

The B’nei Yissasschar and Chidah cite the Maharash Frimo who answers this question by quoting a Gemara in Meseches Avoda Zara (chap. 1, “Lifnei Eideihen”, pg. 3a) which focuses on the verse which says, “Vayehi Erev Vayehi Voker Yom Hashishi” (and there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day; Parshas Bereishis, 1:31). The Gemara wants to know why there is a seemingly extra letter hey attached to the word “Shishi” making it “Hashishi?” By no other day is the letter hey added (Sheini, Shlishi, Revii, etc.).

The Gemara explains that this letter hey teaches us that after Hashem created the world, He made a condition with creation. Hashem said that if the Jews will accept the Torah at Mount Sinai, then everything created will continue existing. However, if the Jews reject the Torah, then everything created will revert back to Tohu and Vohu (null, void, chaos, emptiness).

We can see this from the added letter hey because the letter hey is numerically five which represents the Five Books of the Torah. Additionally, the letter hey on the word “Hashishi” means “THE sixth day,” referring to the famous sixth day of Sivan (Shavuos) upon which the Jewish people accepted the Torah. So, if the Jews will accept the Chamisha Chumshei Torah on the sixth day of Sivan, everything will continue to exist. If not, not.

Now, we know that Hashem offered the Torah to the other nations of the world (Avoda Zara ibid, pg. 2b), but they turned it down. It turns out that from the perspective of the nations, the world was going to self-destruct. It was only the Jews who accepted the Torah and who saved the world from imploding. This is crucial information, as we will now see.

The Gemara in Baba Metzia (chap. 2, “Eilu Metzios”, pg. 24a) cites Rebbi Shimon ben Elazar who says that if an object which was owned by somebody sinks in the tides of the sea, or gets swept away by the surge of a flooding river, and somebody else finds it, the object belongs to the finder, because the original owner had “yey-ush” (loss of hope) of ever retrieving it. Yey-ush causes loss of ownership. Therefore, in this case, finders’ keepers.

The Maharash Frimo says that Olam Hazeh was like that object sinking in the ocean because as the nations rejected the Torah, the world was about to self-destruct. When the nations felt the trembling of the earth underneath them, they had yey-ush. Not only did they lose hope of ever getting their possessions back, but they lost hope of holding onto their very lives.

Therefore, when the Jews accepted the Torah, the world calmed down. The world was saved. The Jews had rescued the world from sinking into oblivion. As a result, the Jews became the new owners of Olam Hazeh. This is how Jews are allowed to take pleasure from this world, beyond what is necessary for our survival. It is because we became the new owners of this world. We are not taking anything away from Eisav by enjoying the pleasures of Olam Hazeh.

The Shvilei Pinchas says that this explains why Hashem wanted to use the ambiguous word “Vayishalu.” It is because Hashem wanted the Egyptians to interpret this word to mean “request for a gift.” Hashem wanted the Egyptians to think that they were giving away their gold and silver to the Jews as payment for decades of forced labor that they made compulsory for the Jews. Although the Egyptians never lived up to this expectation, as we saw from their claim against the Jews in front of Alexander the Great, this was still Hashem’s intention.

However, Hashem wanted the Jewish people to interpret this word to mean “borrow.” This is because Hashem wanted the Jews to know that right now, before Matan Torah, this lower-worldly wealth rightfully belongs to the Egyptians. However, should the Jews accept the Torah, thereby saving the world from imminent destruction, this wealth would belong to the Jewish people according to the letter of the law, because the Egyptians would have already had yey-ush.

Hashem also wanted the Jews to know that if they would reject the Torah, the silver and gold would remain as a loan which they would have to return to the Egyptians sometime before the world would be destroyed.

Perhaps we could add that, based on this approach, there is another answer to the question raised above as to how the Jews were allowed to steal the Egyptian gold and silver. According to the Ibn Ezra above, it was not considered stealing because everything belongs to Hashem. Hashem chose to give that wealth to the Egyptians, and then He decided to take His wealth away from the Egyptians and deposit it with the Jews.

However, according to this new approach, there is another reason as to why the Jews were not guilty of thievery. It is because we accepted the Torah and rescued the world from destruction. Due to Egyptian yey-ush, their property no longer belonged to them, and we rightfully took possession of it.

Perhaps we could add more to modify what we mentioned above about the word “Vayishalu” not being considered a lie. On the contrary, the word “Vayishalu” is extremely precise because this word tells us that if the Jews would not accept the Torah, then all of Egyptian property was on loan and the Jews would have to return it. At the same time, this word teaches us that if the Jews do accept the Torah, then all Egyptian property is a gift (as the Rashbam, Rabbenu Bachya, and the Tosafists said), because the Jews would own the gold and silver since they saved it from sinking into oblivion.

The Shvilei Pinchas concludes by saying that this teaching is relevant to us today, because if we want all of the blessings that this world (Olam Hazeh) has to offer, we must fulfil one condition. That condition is to accept and reaccept the Torah upon ourselves. Every resolution of accepting the Torah reaffirms our ownership of Olam Hazeh which makes us the only people who have the right to benefit from the materialism of this world.

So, practically speaking, let each one of us choose at least one mitzvah that we are going to improve upon a little bit more, because improvement on a mitzvah is an expression of Kabbalas HaTorah for which we will become the beneficiaries of even materialistic gain.

So, may we all be blessed with the wisdom to cling to Torah even more so, and thereby enjoy even the gifts of Olam Hazeh.