The Moral High Road is a Two Lane Street1
Please speak in the ears of the people. Let each man request of his fellow and each woman from her fellow silver vessels and gold vessels. Hashem granted the people favor in the eyes of Egypt. Moreover, the man Moshe was very great in the land of Egypt, in the eyes of the servants of Paroh, and in the eyes of the people.
It is easy to understand just how Hashem granted His people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians. He provided them with a powerful demonstration of the character of the Jewish people. It was so powerful, that it was able to eradicate generations of stereotypes and contempt.
For three days, the Egyptians were immobilized by the plague of darkness. Everything they possessed was available to the Jews for the taking. Moreover, they themselves were fair game to anyone seeking vengeance and reprisal for all the horrors inflicted upon the slave-nation by their Egyptian masters.
When the Egyptians began to see again, it was not only with a sense of relief at having survived their ordeal, but of disbelief that they and their possessions had emerged unscathed and unmolested. Their dwellings were fully in order; nothing at all was missing. The Jews, free to help themselves of whatever they pleased – and with good reason to do so – had taken nothing at all. In an instant, they comprehended the moral nobility of the people with whom they had dealt so unjustly. Moshe, the leader of that people, achieved stature in their eyes for guiding them to moral greatness. This – not all the plagues he had visited upon them – made him great in their eyes.
The Jews must have sensed their triumph, and understood that they had laid firm and unambiguous claim to the moral high road. Once in possession of it, they would not part with it easily. This is why they had to be urged and cajoled (“Please speak”) to ask their newly-found admirers for gifts. Having tasted the sweet taste of moral significance, they were unwilling to trade away any part of it for money. Accepting money – blood money – from their erstwhile oppressors would buy some atonement for the Egyptians, and narrow the moral gap between the two peoples.
Why, then, did Hashem want them to accept the reparations?
The Jews stood on the threshold of genuine peoplehood. They would cross the border of Egypt as a nation, not a huge collection of individuals. Hashem was already looking towards the future, shaping their future well-being at the very moment that he was sculpting them into a complete nation. He was concerned about their future. Their material prosperity was no small part of it. The foundation of that prosperity should be strong, and He wanted the first deposit into their account to be made by outsiders who had recognized the moral greatness of Hashem’s chosen people. The first installment in their savings plan should be elevated above the ordinary by linking it to a Jewish success in spreading awareness of Hashem and His teaching.
We had to make a bit of room on the moral highway for repentant Egyptians to accomplish this, but in His love for His people, Hashem deemed it a price worth paying.
Participatory Democracy 1012
Moshe said, “With our young people and with our old people we will go. With our sons and our daughters, with our flock and our cattle we will go, because it is a festival of Hashem for us.
Paroh asks, “How many of you, exactly, is this worship service of yours going to involve? Make the number reasonable, and we will think about it.”
Moshe responds, “The arithmetic is pretty simple. We all go!”
Paroh counters, “That is absurd. It is not going to happen.”
Moshe stands his ground. “We’re not negotiating. After all, it is a festival of our G-d. If these negotiations are not going anywhere, it may be time to roll out the next plague.”
The exchange strikes us as a battle of wits and determination. Moshe simply raises the ante against whatever Paroh is ready to offer. This really isn’t so, though. Moshe’s insistence that it is a festival of Hashem for us adds nothing to the argument, if we are looking at nothing more than a clash of strong wills. Instead, it is a lesson in comparative religion.
Paroh thought that divine service meant discharging some responsibility to the gods. Give these deities what they need, or what they want, and they will reciprocate with their power and influence. There is no reason why the message and the accompanying tribute cannot be brought by suitable representatives acting on behalf of others.
Moshe tells Paroh that he has it all wrong. Serving G-d is not about delivering messages and gifts. Therefore, there is no room for priests, intermediates, substitutes. We do not serve Hashem with what we give Him, but with ourselves. When G-d calls us, He wants us, not something from us. There are no exceptions. The smallest baby goes, as well as all our possession, i.e. our extended selves.
We are, moreover, a community, and all of our members are equal before G-d. The word festival, chag, is related to the word for “circle.” When He calls, we all gather around, as in a circle, to be with Him.
Spending time in His Presence is itself a form of service, albeit one that Paroh cannot fathom, being completely foreign to the pagan conception of the relationship between Man and a Deity. Moshe’s response to Paroh is one more in a series of lessons that Hashem wished communicated to the world.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Shemos 11:2-3 2. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Shemos 10:9