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Parashat Bo 5773 — 01/16/2013

Parashat Bo 5773 — 01/16/2013

Please speak to the people, that every man should borrow from his neighbor and every woman should borrow from her friends: vessels of silver and vessels of gold.  (11:2)

They requested silver and gold articles and  clothing from the Egyptians.  Hashem made the Egyptians favorably disposed towards them and they “lent” to them; Thus they drained [vayinatzlu] Egypt [of its wealth].  (12:35-36)

R. Yissochar Frand, in a drash published in 5759, asks why Gd had to beg the Israelites to take valuables from the Egyptians.  Generally people are quite eager to get money, especially if it’s “free.”  Of course, having been slaves for several generations one can argue that the Israelites were just collecting a century’s worth of back pay.  Nevertheless, it hardly seems like this mitzvah is so difficult that Gd had to implore the people to perform it!

R. Frand answers that having a lot of money is a great challenge, and one which many do not pass.  We find story after story of lottery winners who blow their winnings on nonsense and wind up impoverished and worse of than before they won.  We also see people who have made a lot of money in business or sports, who lose perspective completely and wind up losing family and friends, winding up wealthy, but miserable.  In the case of the Israelites who left Egypt, we find in the Midrash that Moshe Rabbeinu hints at a reason for the episode with the golden calf – the people had too much gold “burning a hole in their pockets” and they were led astray on that basis.  On the other side, gold and silver can be used for sacred purposes as well – the same people who misused their gold and silver in making the calf, gave generously to build the Mishkan as well.  It appears that the Jewish people had an instinctive sense that this challenge was going to be difficult, hence Gd’s having to urge them to take it on.

R. Frand goes on to comment on the fact that Gd did not tell us to ask the Egyptians to give us silver and gold, but rather to lend us silver and gold.  Even though it should have been obvious at this point that we were not going for a 3-day vacation in the desert, and that therefore none of the “borrowed” items were going to be returned to their erstwhile owners, nevertheless, the impression was made on the Israelites that all the silver and gold that they had really was borrowed.  We have a common expression: Money is the root of all evil.  But this is not correct.  Money used properly is a blessing.  Some of the Sages of the Talmud were fabulously wealthy, including some of the most saintly, like R. Yehudah haNasi, who redacted the Mishnah.  What is spiritual poison is attachment to money, or more generally to the material world.  R. Frand suggests that an antidote to this sense of attachment is to view all of our possessions as borrowed – from Gd, as it says: “Mine is the silver and mine is the gold” (Chaggai 2:8).

The cure that Gd has prescribed for attachment to the material world is exile and poverty.  With some exceptions, our current stay in N. America being a notable one, Jews in the diaspora have lived in poverty.  Perhaps making a virtue of necessity, the Talmud says that “Poverty is so fitting for the Jew, like a red strap (or saddle) on a white horse” (Chagiga 9b).  Not having possessions is of course a fine way to not be attached to possessions, as is living in an unstable environment where the possessions one does have can be confiscated at any time.

If we view the history of our current exile (since the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE) we see cycles of poverty and wealth, as if the poverty purges us of our attachment to the material, and gives us the opportunity to be challenged again by wealth.  Unfortunately we have never, as a people, been able to accept wealth with the correct attitude – that it is on loan to us from Gd and our purpose in having this wealth is to use it to further Gd’s purposes on earth.

Now we are engaged on a great battlefield of that struggle, namely our own society here in the US and Canada.  According to R. Frand, R. Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821) predicted that the exile in America would be the last stop before the coming of Mashiach (note that he passed away almost a century before the mass immigration of Eastern European Jews to the US) and it would therefore seem that the way we handle the wealth we have been given is a critical test/hurdle to overcome before the Redemption can take place.  How are we doing?  I think we all know the answer to that question – like the Egyptians of old we are stuck in a materialistic society where “the one with the most toys at the end wins.”  We have seen the results of this focus on the material world, and they are not pretty; in fact they are dangerous to our health and welfare.  Whether Gd will send plagues to remove the Jewish people from this society remains to be seen; in the meantime we appear to be perfectly capable of creating our own plagues, but less capable of learning from our mistakes.

It is clear to me that the Jewish people in particular and society as a whole is desperately in need of spiritual regeneration.  We know that the finite can never be self-sufficient; as long as we deal only with the finite we are dealing with that which, left to itself, only goes downhill (Second Law of Thermodynamics).  Only an open system can grow and evolve.  We have been given Gd’s Torah which tells us how to live a life in holiness, in contact with the infinite.  A people living such a life will automatically be “a light unto the nations.”  Perhaps in earlier times such a life was a luxury, but now it is a matter of life and death for all of us.  We dare not fail again.