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Parashat Bo 5775 — 01/21/2015

Parashat Bo 5775 — 01/21/2015

The Israelites did as Moses had said.  They requested silver and gold articles and clothing from the Egyptians.  Gd made the Egyptians respect the people, and they granted their request.  The Israelites thus drained Egypt of its wealth. (12:35-36)

Rav Ami said: they made Egypt like a trap without bait.

Resh Lakish said: they made Egypt like a net without fish.  (Berachot 9b)

First, let’s clear up a misconception.  The Israelites “requested” silver and gold articles and clothing.  This is usually translated that they “borrowed” these items, and indeed the root sh-a-l has that meaning, but it is a derived meaning.  But since they had no intention of returning to Egypt, they certainly wouldn’t have asked to “borrow” something they knew they had no intention of returning.  On the surface level, the wealth that they took with them could be considered “back pay” for the years of backbreaking, unpaid labor.  However there are some deeper issues here, as we shall see.

One of the purposes of draining Egypt’s wealth was to make sure that there was no attraction in going back.  Now one would think that after experiencing slavery and then tasting freedom, one would never want to go back to being a slave.  However along with freedom comes responsibility – responsibility to think for oneself, to make moral choices and to act on them, even when they appear to be contrary to our material self-interest.  In our case, it also brought the responsibility to obey Gd’s commandments and to be a “light unto the nations.”  This is not an easy task, and many are the times, recorded in scripture, that the Israelites are reported being ready to head straight back into Pharaoh’s arms.

The two quotes from the Talmud indicate that there were two different reasons why Egypt had to be “drained” of its wealth.  Rav Kook explains that the first reason, to make it like a trap without bait, is simply to remove the economic incentive to return.  Whenever the nation was afraid it was going to run out of food or water, the first reaction was to remember the riches of Egypt (and indeed, even through the slavery, some Israelites apparently became wealthy, see Rashi to 4:19) and want to go back there.  And this was after they had already taken most of Egypt’s wealth!  Egypt was a trap of materialism, and its impoverishment was meant to remove the “bait” from the trap.  Our Sages tell us that 80% of the Jews in Egypt died during the plague of darkness because they were so caught up in this trap that they wouldn’t have left Egypt.  How many of us would consider leaving the US or Canada for Israel if we saw it becoming an impoverished, 3rd world country?  Maybe we’ll soon have a chance to find out…

The other analogy is a net without fish.  This refers to the nature of fish to school – large numbers of fish congregate together for mutual security and feeding.  Unfortunately, if they congregate in a fisherman’s net, they all get caught!  The purpose of draining Egypt was not just to impoverish it materially, but to impoverish its culture and way of life, which the Jews had gotten quite used to in their sojourn there.  Again, consider our situation here in N. America: we are comfortable with the way of life here, we speak the language, we imbibe the values, even the bad ones, in our daily lives, in the way we educate our children, in the way we do business, in the way we utilize the resources we have been given.  We fit in with the people here, at least most of the time.  But would we have that same level of comfort if all of a sudden we turned into a corrupt, poverty-ridden third world country?  Would we want to associate with either the elite or the downtrodden?  All of a sudden the net would be empty of the kind of fish we would feel comfortable “schooling” with.  Thus, there are two ways that Rav Kook identifies that “draining” Egypt, besides being a lot of back pay, reduces the likelihood that we would ever want to go back there.

I would like to mention another facet of this “draining” of Egypt.  The word “drained” is vay’natzlu.  The verb “to rescue” is l’hatzil.  The two words have the same root – what is the connection between the two ideas?  First, we might ask where Egypt’s wealth came from.  To some extent it came from Yosef.  During the famine, all the nations around Egypt were forced to come to Egypt, where Yosef had the foresight to store up the grain of the 7 years of plenty.  Now it’s payback time.  Israel is taking all this gold and silver, and what is it going to do with it all?

The Israelites did two things with the weath they took out of Egypt.  First, they made a golden calf.  This obviously was no improvement at all over what the Egyptians would have done.  But after that, and partly in atonement for it, they built the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert, where they could offer sacrifices in order to grow closer to Gd.  This second use of the gold and silver they had taken “rescued” it from crass, materialistic or idolatrous use, and raised it to a level of sanctity we can only begin to imagine.

Our esoteric tradition tells us that everything in the universe is, at its basis, Gd manifesting Himself.  Therefore, everything has at its basis infinite holiness – in their words, a Divine spark encased in a hard, material shell.  It is the job of human beings to “raise up” these sparks to their celestial source.  In the case of a human being, that means reconnecting the individual with Gd; since human beings are capable of experiencing subtler and subtler levels of thought, it is reasonable to see how this can be done.  But in the case of inanimate objects, what is there to say?  Since inanimate objects cannot move or change by themselves, they need the help of someone who can.  That would be us.  We human beings can maintain our awareness on the level of the Divine, while acting with our bodies in the material world.  Thus, by using material objects for a holy purpose, and in a holy manner, we fit those particular pieces into the Divine plan in the way they are supposed to be used, thus revealing the holiness within.

When the Israelites donated to the building of the Mishkan, and actually created it and its appurtenances according to Gd’s commands, they took the raw materials and shaped them into a perfect reflection of the structure of Divinity.  Just as Gd redeemed them from the Egyptians, the Israelites saved all the gold and silver that their forebear Yosef had collected from being just lumps of inert matter in the Egyptians’ hands.  Our challenge is to do the same with whatever resources we have been entrusted, and thereby actualize the Messianic Age.

The Sacks Haggadah

Essay 15: The Art of Asking Questions

Why do Jews always answer a question with another question?  Well, why shouldn’t Jews answer a question with another question?!  Other religions ask us to accept blindly what they teach.  Judaism encourages us to question, to debate with one another, and to question and debate Gd, as Avraham did, as the prophets did, as our Sages have done throughout the generations, and as simple Jews have done as well.  “Would it spoil some vast, eternal plan / If I were a wealthy man?”

Rabbi Sacks points out that questions presuppose that there are answers, and the existence of answers presupposes that there is an intelligence, an order, in the universe.  It may be that there are answers that are unknowable to human intelligence – there may be an order so profound that even the most enlightened cannot get their heads around it, because it surpasses even the great level of order and intelligence that make up the human mind.  (This may be reflected in Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem which basically states that any system of logic will contain true statements that cannot be proven to be true within the confines of that system.)   Nevertheless, we Jews must never stop striving for deeper understanding, and the path to this deeper understanding is an unrelenting questioning of what we think we know.

Of course, questions play a fundamental role at the Seder.  We begin with the famous 4 questions, and we deal with the questions, explicit or implicit of the four sons.  Why is this night different from all other nights?  Perhaps the answer to that question is – it really isn’t so different!  If we are constantly educating our children and ourselves, we are constantly encouraging them to ask questions, and we are constantly questioning our own answers.