God tells the Jewish nation that they are soon to leave Egypt, where they have been enslaved for over two hundred years, and He gives a curious instruction. The soon-to-be-free slaves are to approach their Egyptian neighbors—their masters—who will give them valuable gifts of gold and silver. I’ve always thought of this as payment for all the work the Israelites did.
However, bible scholar (and Rabbi) Benno Jacob (1862-1945) sees it very differently. According to him, the gold and silver the Egyptians gave were “farewell gifts,” given out of a genuine sense of affection for the Israelites. “This new mood was surprising, but even some of Pharaoh’s loyal courtiers [had begun] to see matters differently and respected Moses.” The gifts given by the Egyptians were thus “a clear public protest against the policies of the royal tyrant. They demonstrated a renewal of public conscience…[and] it showed a moral change; the receptive heart of the Egyptian people was now contrasted to the hard heart of Pharaoh.”
As Rabbi Jacob understands it, God’s primary concern during the Israelites’ final hours in Egypt was “peace between the two peoples.” Seeking to ensure that the mandate to love rather than hate would be the lesson Israel learned from its time in Egypt, God commanded in no uncertain terms: “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land” (Deuteronomy 23:8).
Is Rabbi Jacob’s interpretation convincing as the plain sense meaning (peshat) of the text? I have my doubts. But there is something important about his interpretation. In a world filled with bigotry and hostility, a world in which people of faith often use sacred texts to legitimate acts of cruelty and to extol hatred as a virtue, there is great power in being reminded: Religion should be about the attempt to soften, and open, one’s heart, to God and to one-another. If even the Egyptians and the Israelites can be (successfully!) called to appreciate one-another, then perhaps, even in the darkest of times, there is hope available to us.
Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Paul Arberman