On Generalizing Social Groups
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
In Parashat Bo, we learn of the last plagues that God cast on the Egyptians in order to attain the liberation of the Hebrew people. It was especially the final plague, the death of the firstborn, that convinced Pharaoh to allow the Hebrews to leave the land of Egypt.
At the most anticipated time, the Torah tells us that the people, following Moses’ orders, “borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold. The Lord disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people and they let them have their request; thus, they stripped the Egyptians.” (Sh’mot 12:35-36).
I would like to stop and analyze this verse which has raised several questions as to its meaning. These people were slaves for hundreds of years; they suffered, they were abused, and now, when they are able to leave that hellish life, they dare to ask their masters for silver and gold! It does not sound like the request of a slave. However, we can argue that it was Moses, supported by God, who led them to make this request. Moses, a free-thinking man, knew that a people without resources would be doomed to failure. Freedom would be of no use without the means to survive and live well.
Another question that stems from this text is the meaning of “stripped” (vaynatzlu), “dispossessed,” “took advantage of.” Why did God task the children of Israel to commit such an action against the Egyptians? Was it about revenge?
Philo of Alexandria answered this question in his work “On the Life of Moshe,” saying this request was not meant as a way to take advantage of the Egyptians, but as a reward for the heavy work, the Hebrews had done during so many years in Egypt. The purpose was, in a way, to achieve compensation. Therefore, it was not a “dispossession,” but a way to achieve justice, to redeem their work (“On the Life of Moses,” 1:25).
Along this same line, Abravanel claims that the material things left behind in Egypt by the people of Israel exceeded the value of the objects the Hebrews requested from their neighbors. We can also think that by enslaving them, the Egyptians had stripped them of all their belongings and now the Hebrews were simply attempting to recover some of that.
Even the Talmud tells a story of a trial of the Egyptians, urging them to pay for the suffering they perpetrated. Gabiha Ben Paziza defended the cause of Israel before the court of the emperor Alexander of Macedonia, telling the Egyptians of the day: “Pay us the salary of the six hundred thousand men that you made work as slaves for four hundred thirty years in Egypt.” (Talmud, Masechet Sanedrin 91a)
Kasuto also holds that, according to the law, the Egyptians should have paid for the work done by the Hebrew people; they did not pay, and there was no court of justice (Beit Din), then the Beit Din Shel Mala (heavenly court) stepped in and ordered justice be served.
Therefore, we can see that a vast majority of commentators hold that neither God nor the people of Israel had the intention of stealing or taking advantage of the Egyptians; instead, they meant to achieve justice.
Taking a different view, the historian Flavius Josephus in his book “Jewish Antiquities,” states: the Egyptians gave them gifts, some to hurry them away and make them leave as soon as possible, and others out of a sense of friendship. The Hebrews left and the Egyptians cried and repented how they had treated them.
This commentary is profoundly moving. It shows that not all of the Egyptians were bad people. There were among them sensitive people who did not feel right about what was going on, who felt a sense of friendship towards the Hebrews and gave them genuine gifts, based on a true friendship.
Another source that supports this idea comes from the discussion of whether the midwives who saved the Hebrew babies, disobeying Pharaoh’s order (Sh’mot 1:17), were Hebrew or Egyptian. Several commentators claimed that they were Hebrews; however, Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus held that they were Egyptians.
Following this line of thought, there were Egyptians who were capable of risking their lives for a just cause, saving the Hebrews. We can find among the Egyptians some who disagreed with the atrocities committed by the Pharaoh, who expressed their disagreement through great and small acts of courage and justice.
These sources teach us about the importance of avoiding the mistake of stereotyping people or social groups. Often, if a small group of people—a religious, racial, ethnic, or political group—does something bad, we tend to hate and blame the entire larger group.
Our own history has taught us that we should not generalize, that not all members of a group believe and see things in the same way. We have many examples from the Shoah of non-Jewish people who risked their lives in order to help and save many Jews. They are called The Righteous among the Nations by the State of Israel.
Most of the Egyptians mistreated the Hebrew people, but not all of them. We should keep in mind that some of the Egyptians felt bad and gave presents to the Hebrews as a symbol of their friendship and solidarity. Some even risked their lives to save Hebrews.
As we learn from this week’s parashah, we must not generalize any social group. We should distinguish those people who fight for freedom, justice, and genuine peace from those who have really evil intentions.