Friends Out of Enemies
Parshat Bo, this week’s Torah portion, records the final dialogues between Moshe and Pharaoh. The ensuing last three plagues of destruction, brought on the Egyptian nation as a consequence to Pharaoh’s stubbornness, resulted in the liberation of the Jewish people. What is remarkable, and almost unnoticed, in the parsha, is the reaction the Jewish people had toward their tormentors. Equally attention grabbing is the reaction the Egyptian populace had toward the Jews.
The final blow to the economy of Egypt took place during the plague of locust. They swarmed the land and consumed all the vegetation that was not destroyed by the hail. Egyptian society was primarily an agrarian culture. After the locusts, they were reduced to total financial ruin.
The Jews are informed of the 9th plague, days of darkness. The Torah describes that this darkness was no ordinary darkness. “The darkness will be tangible. No man could see his brother, nor could anyone arise from his place for a three-day period” (Shemot 10:21-23). What reaction on the part of the Jewish people would we expect to see? After 210 years of harsh, rigorous, tormenting servitude both physically and psychologically, we would expect the Jewish people to take advantage of the Egyptians. Here now, finally, is the opportunity to turn the tables on the Egyptians. We would expect days of rage. All of that pent-up hatred and anger, at long last, has an outlet. One might argue even an appropriate outlet.
In our modern society, whether here in America, in Europe or the Middle East, we tolerate and at times even justify, with passive acquiescence, the looting and rioting that takes place in our cities after a perceived injustice or even after a legitimate injustice has occurred. Remarkable is that no such reaction on the part of the Jews is recorded, anywhere.
Furthermore, earlier in Parshat Shemot during their discussion at burning bush, God informs Moshe, “I will grant this people favor in the eyes of Egypt so you will not go out empty handed. Each woman will ask of her neighbor silver and gold vessels and garments…” (Shemot 3: 21-22) In our parsha, Bo, the God tells Moshe, “Let each man ask of his friend and each woman of her friend silver vessels and gold vessels. Hashem granted the people favor in the eyes of Egypt.” (Shemot 11: 2-3) A close reading of these verses begs a question and reveals an unbelievable attribute of the Jewish people.
The modern-day Torah scholar from the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, the Netziv asks a simple question. When did the relationship between the Jews and their masters change from being “neighbors,” to becoming “friends?” “Neighbor” is a term indicating a mere geographical proximity between people. “Friend” is a term that expresses a close personal relationship between people. This transformation, according to the Netziv, occurred during the plague of darkness.
As the Torah describes the plague of darkness, the Egyptians could not move for three days. (Shemot 10:21) Rashi comments that the plague of darkness was for 6 days. The 3 days mention in the Torah refer to the 2 qualities of darkness each lasting 3 days. During the second 3-day period, the darkness took on a new quality. If standing, the individual could not sit; if sitting, he or she could not stand. The Netziv asks how could the Egyptians survive? After all, they went three or more consecutive days without water.
The Netziv answers, the Jewish people brought them water and food. Astounding! The Jewish people would not even allow their tormentors, their persecutors for the last 210 years, to die of hunger or thirst. The Jewish people having been imbued from their ancestors, going all the way back to Avraham Avienu, with the supreme value of human life and its ethical corollary to bestow chesed on all people, could not allow the Egyptians to go without food and water.
Despite the 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, a new idea about God and His relationship to mankind. During the reprieve between plagues, Egyptians could do teshuva. The Torah records that many did. The goal was that the Egyptians should remain alive and live their lives in recognition of the true God of the universe.
This treatment by the Jews toward the Egyptians instantly turned their enemies into their friends. A complete change and transformation in the very nature of their relationship took place at that moment. This new found admiration not only caused the Egyptians to give their wealth to the Jews but more importantly to embrace them as friends.
In final testament to this new attitude between the former slaves and their masters, the Torah tells us,” Also the man Moshe was very great in the land of Egypt, in the eyes of the servants of Pharaoh, and in the eyes of the people.” (Shemot 11: 3) The entire episode, from Moshe’s return to Egypt until that moment, also served to elevate everyone’s understanding and esteem for Moshe.
The Jewish people displayed an unbelievable level of mercy and kindness to the Egyptians. Fast forward to today. Consider how the Israelis care for their sworn enemies, Syrian and others, when they seek from them refuge or medical care. Hospitals are set up right on the borders to treat their wounded civilians and soldiers. Israeli doctors and hospitals routinely treat relatives and family members associated with Hamas and Hezbollah.
Later in the Torah, when the wicked prophet, Bilam, attempts to curse the Jews, he expresses our foundational national attribute. “They are a nation that lives alone.” (Bamidbar 23:3) We are a nation that acts and lives as no other nation or people in the world. This way of living is a direct result of embracing the values of our Torah. When we do, as a natural result we are successful, create a sanctification of God’s name in the world and remain under God’s divine protection.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan