Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat Shemot: Is it Justified to Harm Those Who Have Harmed Us?

1 Comment 02 January 2018

In her dvar Torah to Parashat Shemot, Rabbi Dalia Marx examines how our sources and our sages approach accounts of potentially embarrassing or unethical behavior.  Is theft or the injuring of others ever permitted? 

Israel in Egypt. By Edward Poynter – Renewal, Public Domain

By Rabbi Dalia Marx

Towards the end of God’s revelation to Moshe at the burning bush, the emotionally-charged revelation during which God announces their approaching redemption and his role in it, God gives the following instruction:

Each woman shall borrow from her neighbor and from the dweller in her house silver and gold objects and garments, and you shall put [them] on your sons and on your daughters, and you shall exploit Egypt.” Exodus, 2: 22

The suffering, tortured Hebrew slaves are called on to leave behind the Egyptian chapter of their lives by exploiting (H: “nitzzul”) [1] their neighbours.

What had the relationship between the Hebrew and their neighbours been like? Had the Egyptian neighbours bullied them, exploited their higher status? Had they been normal neighbourly relations, of little grudges and local friendships, of people who knocked on the door to ask for a cup of sugar or an egg? Maybe the Egyptians pitied the Israelites, sympathized with them in their troubles? Who knows, perhaps they even shared their joy in the coming redemption?

Needless to say that we cannot answer these questions. It seems as if the Torah itself has difficulty with the permission (or – command) to exploit the Egyptians, since it repeatedly refers to it, three times, in fact: the commandment appears in our Torah reading and again before the plague of the first-born, (Exodus, 11, 2) but also in the next chapter there is a description of the carrying out of this commandment to “exploit” them. Actually, this matter is mentioned again, in the promise to Abraham: “And also the nation that they will serve will I judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great possessions.” (Genesis, 15: 14) This is quite a rare case of an apparently minor matter being referred to over and over again.

The embarrassment of Jewish readers and commentators in the face of the instruction to exploit the Egyptians gave birth to many interpretations through the generations. Here are some of them:

1. The teaching was intended to realize the promise in the “covenant of the parts” (Gen 15,14). (See above).

2. The people of Israel only took the wages they had earned over four hundred years (Bavli, Sanhedrin, 91a)

3. The Israelites took things that were moveable property from the Egyptians because they left them their homes. (Rabbi Isaac Arameh, Akedat Yitzhak)

4. They were permitted to take from the Egyptians since their wealth was a result of the economic-political reform orchestrated by Joseph.

5. “Each woman shall borrow from her neighbor” – the Egyptians gave happily and knowing that this was a gift. (Rashbam).

6. This action was ”intended to lift the spirits of the people who had been placed in the lowly state of slavery for many years [….] and so it was appropriate to get their souls accustomed to making great requests, in order that from this they learn to strive for great spiritual things and higher moral qualities” (Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook)

7. Benno Yacov sees in this deed an educational action that comes to educate the people of Israel to recognize the goodness of the Egyptians, and to act accordingly when they too would have slaves.

Each of these commentaries provides an opening into a worldview that teaches us more about the commentators than about the text they are interpreting. The readers can judge which of the interpretations is convincing in their eyes.

I admit that none of them fully satisfy me.  In my eyes the instruction to perform a “spontaneous” but organized and systematic theft is especially disturbing since it is based on a breach of trust towards ordinary people. I am encouraged by the fact that the Torah also sees this as a serious matter (as we have said it is repeated four times). The fate of this gold is that it is melted down and used to build the golden calf and subsequently is burned until very thin (i.e. to ashes).

Our holy Torah does not hide embarrassing or disturbing matters and does not seek to justify things that are hard to justify. She lays them out before the readers in order that they might judge themselves. In our case, The Torah leaves the upsetting question open before us: Does our having been hurt permit us to hurt others?

I think that we should answer this question with a decisive negative!

[1] The verb “Nun-Tzadi-Lamed” ( (נצ”לcomes in a number of different meanings: in the sense of “to save”(להציל) the instruction is then to save the precious utensils from Egypt; in the sense of “to exploit (לנצל) ” in its usual meaning the instruction would then be to take advantage of the Egyptians; in the sense of “to empty”  and then the instruction would be to empty Egypt of its treasures.

[2] Rayah Kook, Ein Ayah, Brakhot, 1, 114)

[3] The translation from German is taken from: Nehama Leibowitz, Studies of the Book of Exodus (Hebrew), 134.

Special thank you to Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann for translation

Rabbi Dalia Marx (PhD) is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights and an Associate professor of liturgy and midrash at the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College-JIR, and teaches in various academic institutions in Israel and Europe. Marx, tenth generation in Jerusalem, earned her doctorate at the Hebrew University and her rabbinic ordination at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem and Cincinnati. She is involved in various research projects and is active in promoting liberal Judaism in Israel. Marx writes for academic and popular journals and publications.

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1 comment

  1. alyssa t KAPLAN says:

    a definition of exploit is “make full use of and derive benefit from.” Perhaps that is what the Torah means

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