When one considers the inherent nature of a Divine command, the concept that immediately comes to mind is its inherent authority. It is inherently correct to abide by the authority of God as expressed through His directives. It is true that all that God commands is for the ultimate benefit of humanity – both individually and collectively – but the prime motivation of such compliance is not to emerge from self-benefit but from this commitment to the observance of the Divine Will. It is, thus, most strange to find, in Shemot 11:2, the word na [please],1 in God’s instruction to Moshe Rabbeinu2 to have the Jewish People request3 gold and silver4 from their Egyptian neighbours. If it is a command of God, why the need for the word ‘please’?
If the use of this word, though, indicates that it is not an order but an appeal to the people, why would God not simply command what was right to do but frame it as a request? In any event, why would the people even need to be coerced to do this – ‘please’ almost implying some form of pleading: would this collection of valuables not be obviously beneficial to the Jewish People?
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T.B. Brachot 9a,b, actually, addresses these questions. It states that God asked the Jewish People to request these items from the Egyptians as, when God informed Avraham Avinu that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign land,5 He assured our forefather that they would then leave with great wealth.6 As such, God was really asking the people to assist him in fulfilling this commitment to Avraham by requesting these valuables.7 The people, however, were not actually interested in gathering these valuables as they really wanted to leave Egypt as quickly as possible.
The gemara compares it to someone languishing in prison who is told that he will be released tomorrow and given a large sum of money at that time. Such a person, though, would still ask to rather be freed today even without the money. Similarly, the Jews would have really wanted to leave immediately from Egypt and so God asked them, ‘please’, to delay their departure and ask the Egyptians for the gold and silver in order to fulfill His words to Avraham.
What the gemara seems to be saying is that this idea, that the Jewish People should ask the Egyptians for valuables, was so outside the mindset of the people at this time, it could not be presented as a simple commandment.8 The people had no interest in these valuables and, furthermore, could also not fathom God as really and properly being concerned with providing them with this wealth.9 It is for this reason that God had to make this request in the manner in which He did and with reference to Avraham. This purpose of the request for gold and silver was not for the people at this time. The original statement that the nation would leave with great wealth was for Avraham, to comfort him upon hearing the news that his descendants would be slaves.
God was now simply asking the nation to do this act in order to help Him fulfill His words to Avraham, offered at that time to appease their forefather. As such, the language of the request was as it was, for what was being requested was their assistance in fulfilling a previous pledge — and not seemingly a consideration of what would be proper in the moment, the intended benefit to the people and/or the mindset of the commanded towards such articles.10
This perception of the event would actually seem to provide further clarification of Moshe’s defense of the people, as presented in T.B. Brachot 32a, in connection to the sin of the Golden Calf. Moshe challenges God that He is somewhat responsible for this sin for He provided the gold. Torah Temima, Shemot 11:2, note 1 explains that Moshe is obviously referring to this request from God for the people to ask the Egyptians for their valuables, an act that the people were really not interested in doing.
If God didn’t make this request, the Jewish People would not have had the gold necessary to build the Calf – and so, Moshe contends, God is somewhat responsible for this sin. Yet what really is the essence of this argument –why would the method by which they received the gold mitigate against their culpability?
This gemara may be informing us of the significance of the mindset of one being commanded. As those asking for the silver and gold from the Egyptians saw no real value or personal purpose in this acquisition – they were, in their minds, simply doing God a favour – when they were asked to give up the gold for the Calf, there was also no hesitation. A mitzvah cannot just be about doing the act. It must connect to the person performing the act and must be understood by this person, to the extent possible, in all its depth.
Moshe’s argument was. as such, that, since God still proceeded with the request given this mindset — furthermore, acknowledging it in the language of the request — He had to accept some responsibility for the nation’s mistake. He had to also acknowledge, with sympathy, the sin of the Calf as a consequence of this mindset.
1 It should, perhaps, be noted that there are commentaries who translate this word in this context as ‘now’, thereby avoiding this issue. We will, however, not be considering this view in this Insight.
2 There is somewhat of a controversy whether God’s ‘please’ was directed more specifically to Moshe – please direct the Jews to request these items from the Egyptians – or to the nation – please ask the Egyptians for these items. While there are distinctions between both approaches, in many ways they also overlap reflecting a similar idea. In the context of this Insight, building upon this overlap, we will not be considering this distinction.
3 There is also a disagreement among the commentators whether the Jews were simply directed to borrow these items from the Egyptians or whether they were to outright ask for them from the Egyptians. Turning the request into one of a loan, of course, raises many questions especially in that the Jewish nation, upon leaving, had no intention of returning to Egypt and thus giving back these items ‘borrowed’. We will, however, not be addressing this issue within this Insight as our assumption will be that the asking was an outright request. I still wanted to note this alternative perspective, though, as it is a further indication of the ethical complexities reflected in this verse and in the Exodus in general.
4 This verse’s request refers to silver and gold vessels, often then translated as jewelry. In Shemot 3:22, where this idea first surfaces, the request is specifically directed to women and mentions silver and gold vessels (further implying jewelry) and garments. In Shemot 12:35, where what actually happened is reported, it states that the entire nation asked for silver and gold vessels and garments.
5 See Bereishit 15:13.
6 See Bereishit 15:14.
7 Raising the question of whether this was really necessary: could God not have fulfilled His words to Avraham in another way? See, further, Eitz Yosef on Ein Yaakov, Brachot 9a,b.
8 See, interestingly, Maharsha, Brachot 9a,b.
9 Many commentators build upon this idea that the people actually would have found it offensive to ask the Egyptians for such items – and only did so because of God’s pleading. Rabbi Yehuda Nachshoni, Studies in the Weekly Parshah, Bo, I. Let Them Ask…Vessels of Gold and Silver quotes Oznayim LaTorah who draws a contemporary parallel to how many Holocaust survivors did not want to accept any compensation from the German government for the evils that were done to them. Similarly, the Jews in Egypt did not want to give the Egyptians a similar opportunity to soothe their consciences. See, also, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Shemot 11:2.
10 Of course, these further considerations all were actually considered in this Divine directive. We are, though, specifically discussing the setting of the directive in the period when it was voiced.
© Nishma 2017