“The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing. And the Lord had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians,” we read in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo (Exodus 12:35-36).
Had this constituted the private initiative of the Israelites, who had been enslaved and exploited for centuries, no further explanation would have been required.
But that isn’t the case: it is foretold as a divine promise in Genesis 15, and Exodus 3, and Exodus 11.
What is happening here?
Our sages get creative in finding an answer. The Talmud, Sanhedrin 91a, imagines that these are replacement wages for 430 years of servitude. Rabbeinu Bachya imagines that they were gifts freely given rather than borrowed. A contemporary sage, Benno Jacob, puts forward an even more interesting argument:
For an Israelite, the word Egyptian had the bitterest associations. But the Torah records that the Egyptians and the Jews parted friends, as we read “you shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were strangers in his land (Deuteronomy 23:7).” Israel said to them: “Let us part friends and we’ll take with us a parting gift.”
It was a goodwill gesture, albeit one prompted by the Israelites. This whole narrative could have happened without overtures toward goodwill — the Israelites could have simply forced their will of separation after the plagues — but the Middle East is too small a place to part on bad terms. The world is too small a place to part on bad terms.