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Parshat - Tevet Shemot

Thursday, 4 January, 2018 - 2:52 pm

This week we read about the Jewish exile in Egypt. In last week’s Parsha we read about their arrival, next week we will read about the beginning of the plagues and the lightening of the oppression, but this week is all about the oppression, murder and torture that the Egyptians inflicted on the Jews. I’m sure you know the famous story of the Burning Bush, where Hashem appears to Moshe and tells him that the time of the redemption has arrived, and that Moshe is to go to Pharaoh and tell him to let the people go. What is especially fascinating to me today is what Hashem chooses to tell Moshe at this initial revelation. After telling him that Pharaoh will initially not listen, and that He will bring signs and wonders to force him to let them go, Hashem says: “When they leave, they will not leave empty handed.” They will ask their neighbors to give (or lend) them their gold and silver and they will empty out the wealth of Egypt. It is telling that this was part of Hashem’s first charge to Moshe, even though it happened about a year later, implying that  it carries a lot of importance as part of Moshe’s mission. One wonders why that specific issue had to be discussed now, in the face of the horrible suffering that the Jews were dealing with every day.

One explanation is related to a story told in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a). When Alexander the Great came to Israel, a group of Egyptian farmers sued the Jewish community before him. They claimed that the Jews owed them a huge treasure, since they had taken all the Egyptian wealth with them when they left Egypt. Alexander asked the Jews to respond, and a man by the name of Geviha ben Pesisa volunteered to speak on their behalf. He said to the Egyptians: How do you know that this happened?  They answered that it was written in the Torah. Geviha responded: “Well, it also says in the Torah that the Jews were in Egypt for 430 years [and they were enslaved without pay]. Pay us for 600,000 people working for 430 years. When Alexander asked the Egyptians for their response, they requested three days. During that time, they all escaped, leaving their fields with ripe grain. It was a Sabbatical year when Jews are not allowed to sow their fields, so this standing grain was a huge bounty for the community.

With this story we can begin to understand what Hashem was telling Moshe when, at the very first time He sent him, He told him that the Jews would request the Egyptian wealth and receive it. A slave feels worthless. He is just serving his master with no expectation of payment, and is happy to get his freedom when it comes. Hashem was sending a message that the Jews were not just ordinary slaves in Egypt and their work was not worthless. They had a spiritual purpose there, as Kabbalah and Chassidus explains. In order to prepare the world for receiving the Torah and transforming it to goodness, they needed to “elevate the sparks of holiness” that were buried in Egypt. This also explains why it was so significant that they emptied Egypt of its wealth, but this discussion is beyond the scope of these lines. You can read about the concepts of “sparks” here and here. Suffice it to say that the Jews were accomplishing a great cosmic change with their presence in Egypt. Hashem tells Moshe that the Jews will not slip out of Egypt like ordinary slaves empty-handed. They will be well paid by the Egyptians. Not only that, but they will rightfully ask the Egyptians to pay them, and the Egyptians will agree, showing the great value of their work.

In our own lives, we can take comfort in the knowledge that all out work, including the challenges we face to living a life of goodness, is not empty and meaningless. Every action we do to improve the world and connect to holiness has worth and will ultimately bring great reward, material and spiritual.

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