This week’s parasha is the fulfillment of a 400-year-old prophecy:
יג ויאמר לאברם ידע תדע כי גר יהיה זרעך בארץ לא להם ועבדום וענו אתם ארבע מאות שנה׃ יד וגם את הגוי אשר יעבדו דן אנכי; ואחרי כן יצאו ברכש גדול׃
But it’s striking how the “יצאו ברכש גדול” is fulfilled:
ה ובני ישראל עשו כדבר משה; וישאלו ממצרים כלי כסף וכלי זהב ושמלת׃ לו וה׳ נתן את חן העם בעיני מצרים וישאלום; וינצלו את מצרים׃
I won’t deal with the implications of “וישאלו ממצרים”; I will simply translate as “asked from” rather than “borrowed from”. But what does וינצלו mean?
Rashi, based on the targum, translates it as “emptied”: “they emptied Egypt out”.
The Baal HaTurim cites the Gemara (and connects it to a gematria, as is his wont):
וינצלו את מצרים: בגימטריא עשאוה כמצודה שאין בה דגן (ברכות ט,ב).
But the problem with that is that the word נצל never means “empty”. It generally means “save”. The Rashbam points out that there are other uses of the root to mean “remove, take something from a place it does not belong”, which could go with the “empty” meaning:
ויתנצלו בני ישראל את עדים מהר חורב׃
וינצלו את מצרים: עדיי טוב מלבושיהן שאלו ונתנו על בניהם ועל בנותיהם. וכדכתיב ”ויתנצלו בני ישראל את עדיים מהר חורב“.
But there’s a problem with this. Look at all the other uses of the root נצל to mean “take off, plunder”:
ויצל אלקים את מקנה אביכם ויתן לי׃
ויען כל איש רע ובליעל מהאנשים אשר הלכו עם דוד ויאמרו יען אשר לא הלכו עמי לא נתן להם מהשלל אשר הצלנו; כי אם איש את אשתו ואת בניו וינהגו וילכו׃
ויבא יהושפט ועמו לבז את שללם וימצאו בהם לרב ורכוש ופגרים וכלי חמדות וינצלו להם לאין משא; ויהיו ימים שלושה בזזים את השלל כי רב הוא׃
In each case (except the last which does not have an object), the object of the verb נצל is the thing taken or “saved”, not the place it was taken from. In English that’s not a problem; one can “empty a pot” or “empty the water from a pot”, and “plunder a bank” or “plunder the gold”, but to have a use of a verb in תנ״ך that doesn’t correspond to anything else is problematic. Ibn Ezra notices the problem, but isn’t bothered:
[וינצלו] פועל יוצא לשני פעולים.
But it’s odd. Some commentators reach for other understandings. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg connects it to צלה, as in מצולות ים:
למדנו…שאין עיקר הוראת וינצלו ענין התרקנות, שבאמת לא מצינו לו דמיון ראוי במקרא…ויראה לדעתם לפרש וינצלו ענין שקיעה, דבר השוקע מלמעלה למטה מחמת כבדו, כלשון צללו כעופרת במים אדירים, שפירש״י צללו כמו שקעו…ע״ז אמר וינצלו, שביציאתם בדרך כבוד גדול כזה, יהיו המצרים כבושי פנים בקרקע מפני הבושה, וממראה עיניהם אשר יראו יהיו משוקעים בצרת לבבם ונצללים ביגון לבבם.
The Mechilta translates it as “saved”: בני ישראל “saved” the Egyptians by taking their gold and silver עבודה זרה:
וינצלו את מצרים: מלמד שעבודה זרה שלהם נתכת ובטלה וחזרה לתחלה.
The most insightful translation in my opinion (based on Rabbi Sacks) is from Benno Jacob. Jacob was an interesting character; he was a staunch Reform rabbi (1862-1945) (he never met a mitzvah he didn’t despise) but wrote a very traditionalist, anti-Documentary, commentary on Chumash. As Nechama Leibowitz wrote in a letter to a correspondent who complained that she cited him:
It is true that I cite the words of people who are not observant of the mitzvot, if their words seem correct to me, and can reveal the light of Torah and display its greatness and holiness to the student. [I work] according to the principle: “Accept the truth from wherever it comes.” [From Maimonides’ introduction to his classic work on ethics, Shemonah Prakim.] What can I say?
Benno Jacob was an extreme Reformer, who served in the Sonntag Gemeinde [a Reform congregation that held prayers on Sunday instead of Saturday] and certainly transgressed an enormous portion of our holy Torah’s mitzvot (in addition to the fact that he was an anti-Zionist, etc. etc.). Yet, I learned from his books (Auge um Auge has excellent proofs that “an eye for an eye” according to the simple meaning refers to monetary compensation; Quellenkritik und Exegese, Genesis, Exodus is a forceful work against the Documentary Hypothesis) more than from many books written by bona-fide God-fearing Jews. His claims against biblical criticism and his proofs of their frivolousness and their errors— no one has ever written things better than them, even Rav David Hoffman, zt”l (as difficult as it is to mention the name of this gaon together with B. Jacob) as well as Yissachar Jacobson, a”h and Dr. Muriel who wrote a work on the Torah. Many of my friends—among them, Rabbi David Carlebach zt”l who for many years taught with me in the Seminar in Jerusalem—also learned from his works. He opened our eyes to see things which we had not seen before, and [therefore] toward a true understanding of the Torah.…
Several times, I showed talmidei hakhamim details from Benno Jacob’s important book, Auge um Auge and they thanked me and rejoiced as if discovering a great treasure. Should I then hide the name of the author? This I cannot do. “Who are those whose waters we drink and whose names we don’t mention?” [הוריות יד}
So Jacob translates וינצלו as “saved” but with a twist:
Kn. and Di. interpretation “they pulled the Egyptians out, i.e., they looted the objects which they demanded”, represents a Germanization (entzogen), for only in that language is it possible to equate “pull out” with “plunder”: this has no relationship to our Hebrew text. Even if we assumed they “rescued” objects which were legitimately theirs, they should have been the object, not mitz-ra-yim.
We can only translate this phrase as “and they saved Egypt”. This does not refer to the Egyptian fear of death (our statement follows the last plague), nor was it concerned with the earlier plagues, which they deserved as they had not helped the Israelites. Rather they were saved from the future destructive hate of G-d and any final vengeance. [emphasis mine]
The key to understanding וישאלו ממצרים כלי כסף וכלי זהב ושמלת is that these “gifts” are reparations. They allow בני ישראל to leave Egypt without hating the Egyptians, without always looking for revenge. Rabbi Sacks connects this to a mitzvah in Ki Tetse:
לא תתעב אדמי כי אחיך הוא; לא תתעב מצרי כי גר היית בארצו׃
Now, forty years later, Moses speaks as if none of this had happened, as if the Israelites owed the Egyptians a debt of gratitude for their hospitality. Yet he and the people were where they were only because they were escaping from Egyptian persecution. Nor did he want the people to forget it. To the contrary, he told them to recite the story of the exodus every year, as we still do on Passover, re-enacting it with bitter herbs and unleavened bread so that the memory would be passed on to all future generations. If you want to preserve freedom, he implies, never forget what it feels like to lose it. Yet here, on the banks of the Jordan, addressing the next generation, he tells the people, “Do not hate an Egyptian”. What is going on in this verse?
To be free, you have to let go of hate. That is what Moses is saying. If they continued to hate their erstwhile enemies, Moses would have taken the Israelites out of Egypt, but he would not have taken Egypt out of the Israelites. Mentally, they would still be there, slaves to the past. They would still be in chains, not of metal but of the mind—and chains of the mind are the most constricting of all.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
The victim of injustice needs closure to go on with their life. There are three ways to achieve closure: reconciliation, revenge and reparation. Reconciliation, forgiving the perpetrator and just letting go of the past, is impossible for most people in egregious cases. Revenge works, but not long term:
Arguably, revenge could also serve the function of closure for the individual; a possibility wholly excluded and deemed outside the acceptable range of discourse of the South African TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission]. Equally, revenge could also serve as a way of perpetuating violence and in so doing trap the individual in the liminal space.
The word liminal comes from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold—any point or place of entering or beginning. A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing.
Reparation literally means “repair”, but it is not undoing the injustice but allowing the victim to feel that justice has been served.
Reparations are one of the main means by which truth commissions and similar processes seek to achieve national and individual reconciliation, and they result in common psychological consequences in each case. Psychologically speaking, the so-called symbolic acts of reparation such as reburials, and material acts of reparation such as payments, serve the same end. Both these forms of reparation can, although not necessarily, play an important role in processes of opening space for bereavement, addressing trauma and ritualising symbolic closure. They acknowledge and recognise the individual’s suffering and place it within a new officially sanctioned history of trauma.
[I]f the desire for vengeance grips the survivor, then accepting paltry reparations can also be experienced by the survivor as a disrespectful act that betrays the loss they have endured or the memory of those killed. In essence, rituals of respect (such as retribution through the courts) and remembering can be broken by reparations, just as they can in some cases serve as a symbol of mending.
In order for reparations to work, both the perpetrator and the victim have to feel that the reparations are just and proportionate. In Egypt, the perpetrators were subject to ה׳’s open miracle: וה׳ נתן את חן העם בעיני מצרים. For the Jews, for us, it is our responsibility to let go of hate: לא תתעב מצרי.
And this concept becomes part of the ongoing halacha:
יב כי ימכר לך אחיך העברי או העבריה ועבדך שש שנים; ובשנה השביעת תשלחנו חפשי מעמך׃ יג וכי תשלחנו חפשי מעמך לא תשלחנו ריקם׃ יד העניק תעניק לו מצאנך ומגרנך ומיקבך; אשר ברכך ה׳ אלקיך תתן לו׃ טו וזכרת כי עבד היית בארץ מצרים ויפדך ה׳ אלקיך; על כן אנכי מצוך את הדבר הזה היום׃
And it continues to matter in Jewish history:
Is it possible to be bought off by such trinkets, to take mere money in exchange for the memory of those tortured or killed? Such was the argument of Menachem Begin with David Ben-Gurion at the beginning of relations between the new Germany and the start-up nation of Israel after World War II. Begin felt that to accept monetary reparations for Holocaust suffering was unacceptable: Don’t let them use a “gift” to purify their tainted souls.
Ben-Gurion felt differently. The money from Germany was not just compensation for stolen property and lost lives, but a necessary step in financing growth of the new land. Also, if Israel was to join the community of nations, it would need to have interaction with the Germans. To do so, Germans would need a way to apologize for the unforgivable, and Israel would need to accept such an apology, even if offered as a gift wrapped in cash.