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Why Did The Egyptians Become Our Friends?

In the middle of this week’s Torah portion, parshat Bo, God uses a much unexpected term. God tells Moshe, “Please speak in the ears of the people: Let each man request of his friend and each woman from her friend vessels of silver and gold.” (Shemot 11:3) Both the men and women of Israel were instructed to ask of their Egyptian counterparts for their gold and silver possessions that they will take with them when they leave Egypt. What is the much unexpected term used in God’s charge?

If we look closely at the verse, the term “friend” is used to describe the relationship between the Jews and the Egyptians. Maybe I missed something in the previous Torah portions but I don’t recall any indication of friendship developing between them.  God, when first instructing Moshe on his mission at the burning bush, tells him, “Each woman will request of her neighbor…” (Shemot 3:22). First, what is the difference in the terminology between “neighbor” and “friend”? Neighbor is a term that denotes location and proximity in living one person to another. Friend is a term of closeness, concern and care in a relationship between people despite the actual living distances.

When did B’nai Yisrael become friends of the Egyptians? How did this transformation take place? The Netziv, a Torah scholar of the late 1800’s early 1900’s, offers an answer and explanation to our questions.

Strangely, this command by God to the Israelites takes place between the 9th plague, darkness, and the 10th, the killing of the first born. What happened in between these 2 afflictions? Rashi tells us here that while the Torah says the plague of darkness was for 3 days, it actually lasted for 6. Each of the previous 8 plagues lasted a week. Then the Egyptian people and Pharaoh were given a reprieve. They were to use this time for self-reflection and teshuva. It seems from the Torah that many Egyptians finally did get the message. “The servants of Pharaoh said to him, ‘How long will this be a snare for us? Send out the men that they may serve Hashem, their God! Do you not know yet that Egypt is lost?!’” (Shemot 10:7) Others listened to Moshe’s warning before the plague of hail, to shelter their livestock so they wouldn’t be destroyed. Many heeded his warning.

According to Rashi, the plague of darkness consisted of 2 different qualities of darkness, each lasting 3 three days. According to the Netziv, it was during the second set of three days when the Jews became friends of the Egyptians. It was during this time that the Torah describes the darkness such that if you were standing you could not sit, if you were sitting you could not get up. The Egyptians were frozen. Not only does darkness bring out the inner most fears of a person, no one likes to sit in the dark for very long, but this darkness threatened the existence of the Egyptian people. They were starving and thirsty. “They could not move from their place for a three day period.” (Shemot 10:23) How did they survive?

The Netziv says that incredibly Bnai Yisroel brought their Egyptian tormentors food and water so they would not die. This performance demonstrates an unbelievable, “midah,” character trait of the Jewish people. Up until this moment, for the last 200 plus years, the Egyptians were abusing the Jewish people, physically and psychologically. The people were made to do thousands of hours of useless labor, as the Talmud Sotah, 11a states, “Why was on store city called Raamses? Because one building after the other collapsed. (“mithroses” in Hebrew). And why was the other called Pithom? Because the mouth of the deep (“pi tehom” the swamp) swallowed up one building after the other.” (Men were forced to do women’s work and women, men’s work. As the Haggadah relates, “everything they did was with rigor.” The rigor was not only physically hard but psychologically unfulfilling as well.

In spite of this cruel treatment by the Egyptians, Bnai Yisroel did not seek their death. That was not the purpose of the darkness. Just the opposite. Each plague was designed to teach all people, Jew and Egyptian alike, some new idea about God. Then during a reprieve from the plague, Egyptians could do teshuva. On the contrary, the Egyptian people should remain alive in order to also live their lives in recognition and praise to God of the universe.

The Jewish people displayed an unbelievable level of mercy and chesed to the Egyptians. Fast forward to today. Consider how the Israelis care for their sworn enemies, Syrian and others, when they are refugees on Israel’s border fleeing the harsh conditions in their own country. Israeli doctors and Israeli hospitals routinely treat the relatives and family members of Hamas and Hezbollah. Our DNA runs deep with the attributes of mercy (“rachamim”) and kindness (“chesed”).

Let us always stay true to this part of our nature. It is the Torah’s vision for the world that when the other nations will recognize the Jewish people only seek their welfare as well as their own, that there will be true peace and friendly relations between Jew and non-Jew and Israel with the other nations of the world. It happened in Egypt, it can happen again!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan