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Thursday, 2 April, 2015 - 11:28 am

Several years ago, a prominent Egyptian law professor, Nabil Hilmi, Dean at the University of Al-Zaqaziq, mounted a massive lawsuit against “all Jews around the world” for the theft of one trillion tons of Egyptian gold during the Exodus. The Professor said, “This was the greatest act of collective theft in history.” He wants the gold back, plus interest for the last 3,300 years, though he graciously offered to spread the repayment term over the next 1,000 years — with interest, of course. Nabil is correct. We did plunder Egypt. Before the Jews left Egypt, G-d commanded us to ask the Egyptians for gold, silver, and jewels.

The Torah itself signals that this was no minor request, for references to it appear even at the very first encounter between G-d and Moses at the burning bush, long before the story of the Exodus began. Already then G-d told Moses that when the Jews left Egypt, they should ask of their neighbors gold and silver. The implication is clear: this act was an essential part of the process of liberation.

But why? The Israelites wanted to go free. Nothing else. Did they need valuables as well? Of what value is money when one’s life is in peril? The point is that G-d required the Jews to ask the Egyptians for treasure to compensate them for their centuries of unpaid labor, however inadequate that compensation might be. G-d wanted the Israelites to leave with a sense that some of the debt had been settled, so that part of the stigma of slavery would be erased and they could leave without a deep sense of hatred and rage. Why was this important?  Here the Torah is communicating a most profound idea: The past can hold us prisoner just as powerfully as any tyrant, sometimes more. G-d knew that if the Jews carried with them a burden of resentment, Moses would have taken the Jews out of Egypt but he would not have taken Egypt out of the Jews.

The people would be physically free but spiritually, psychologically they would be slaves—to the past, to anger, to a lingering sense of humiliation. Freedom is not only physical. It is psychological. It consists in the ability to let go, to draw a line over the past and focus on the future. Without it, no people will ever be free.  And this compensation worked. If you read the biblical narrative, you will find that the Jews in the wilderness complained about many things, about the food, the water, the dangers on the way. But not once did they say, “Let us take revenge against the Egyptians”.  While most of us will not have to endure being enslaved to Pharaoh, the everyday resentments we carry in our personal lives can enslave us in a psychological Egypt.

To be free, we need to let go. Knowing this, we can begin to understand the extraordinary impact of the Torah’s teachings on Jewish character. From that day in Egypt to this, Jews have not been good haters.

Jews were expelled from England in the thirteenth century but we don’t hate the English. We were expelled from Spain in 1492 but we don’t hate the Spanish. The list goes on and on. Even after the deepest attack ever inflicted on our people, the Holocaust, We did not define ourselves as victims and immerse ourselves in rage. We did not ask how we could do to Germany what Germany had done to us. Instead, we gathered the shattered fragments of our people and rebuilt Jewish life, in Israel and around the world. We put anger and rage behind us and dedicated ourselves to the future, and to life. How was this possible? Why could the Jewish people find this moral courage? Because long ago, Jews learned, as we were leaving Egypt, that you have to say goodbye to hate, before you can say hello to freedom. 


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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