Living in the Past, Living in the Future

As the Israelites are preparing to leave Egypt, God tells Moses that they should request gifts from the Egyptians before they depart. A small Hebrew word is inserted in this request, "na", or, "please." The rabbis are puzzled by this. Why should Moses have to ask, or even beg, the people to take gifts from the Egyptians? It almost seems as if they wouldn't want to!

The rabbis make this even more puzzling in their explanation as to why: So that "that righteous man," or the patriarch Abraham, should not have any complaints. God had promised him that his descendents would leave the nation that had oppressed them "with great wealth." If the Israelites do not request the wealth of Egypt, Abraham might say that God fulfilled His promise of the slavery, but did not fulfill His promise that they would leave with that great wealth.

Some things about this puzzle me. First of all, why should Abraham mind if his descendents decide to forgo the wealth? Isn't the fact that they are being liberated what matters? If they don't want all of that wealth, why should they be forced to take it?

Secondly, why is he referred to as "that righteous man," instead of by his name, Abraham?

Thirdly, why indeed would the Israelites be reluctant to take these gifts from the Egyptians? Didn't they earn at least that during decades of slavery? It would seem the least they could do!

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin gives an impassioned explanation as to why the Israelites might refuse to take the Egyptian wealth. He tells of how there were two opinions on the issue of German reparations after the Holocaust. Some Jews felt we should not accept such payments. It might be seen as the Germans whitewashing the magnitude of their crimes by paying off the victims. It would be putting a price tag on something which is beyond all earthly measurement, the unspeakable crimes of the Holocaust.

Others believed we should accept the money, if, for no other reason, than to avoid a situation of "Have you killed and also inherited?" True, they will argue, the money is completely inadequate to compensate the Jewish people for what they suffered. Instead, it is a symbolic statement of guilt, no more. We should accept and encourage that.

Thus, says Rabbi Sorotzkin, the debate in Egypt was much the same. The Egyptian slavery included unspeakable cruelty, the throwing of the baby boys into the river. Other crimes also were committed. Some felt we should not let the Egyptians feel that they can pay their way out of this one. Others felt we should accept the gifts as an acknowledgment of Egyptian guilt.

We have explained, with Rabbi Sorotzkin's words, the third puzzling feature. The first two questions still remain: why should Abraham mind if his descendents decide to forgive the debt, and why is Abraham called "that righteous one", and not by his name?

I believe that this incident is far more significant than a simple detail of the finale of the Egyptian sojourn. I believe that the rabbis are teaching us that, had Israel not accepted these gifts from the Egyptians, they would not have completely left Egypt behind. A deep psychological insight into dealing with past trauma is being provided here. It is the need for some form of closure.

I think this is hinted at in the explanation of the rabbis as to Abraham's objection. "God fulfilled His promise of enslaving them, but did not fulfill His promise of them leaving with great wealth." But why should that be so significant? God is, after all, bringing them out of Egypt with great wonders! If the wealth is just a small detail, it shouldn't bother Abraham that much.

But it does. It does, because without the Israelites gaining this little bit of justice, the Egyptian slavery remains an open, festering wound. We remain unable to close that chapter, and move on with our lives. The rabbis feel that, had we not allowed Egyptians to put a Band-Aid, as it were, on the wound that they opened, our physically leaving their land would've been almost without significance. Israel is a nation that does not live in the past, it is a nation of lives for the future. Our past must not enslave us.

Abraham is called "that righteous man (Tsaddik)," to stress the need for justice, albeit imperfect. The word "Tsaddik" comes from the same root as justice. A righteous man is one who lives a life of justice. Of course the Egyptians could never compensate the lives that were lost by their evil deeds. But when Israel allows them to do some small justice, to give them some compensation for the labor they performed, to try to make it a little right, they allow closure to happen. They allow us all to move on, and to do better in the future. This is unlike some societies who are still fighting battles from hundreds and thousands of years ago. In contrast, the ancient people of Israel are alive, vibrant, and focused on the future! We even have good diplomatic relations with Germany.

If so, however, why must we always remember the Exodus from Egypt, "all the days of our lives?" Isn't that allowing our past to enslave us?

Absolutely not! By forgetting, we allow the past to enslave us. First of all, we lose all of the lessons of the past if we forget. Second of all, if the forgetting is intentional, it is an admission that the past possesses so much power over us that we dare not remember it!

This dichotomy is at the heart of the festival of Purim. We must celebrate and mock Haman, even as we remember and never forget that which the Amalekites sought to do to us. The problem is not the traumas of the past, the problem is only when you empower them to keep you there. As Dan Sullivan said, "In the past there are no failures. There is only research and development." Once you see your past traumas and failures as learning and growing experiences, you are empowered to look forward and build a glorious future.

That's what the people of Israel have done, partly because they asked for and received the gifts of the Egyptians. That enabled them to be truly set free.