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
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
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