This appears here in the Jewish Star
Clothes for the road
Issue of January 22, 2010/ 7 Shvat 5770
Before the instruction of “Hachodesh hazeh lachem” established the calendar for the Israelite nation, G-d told Moshe, “Now speak to the people discreetly and let each man request from his friend gold and silver articles. Let every woman make [the same] request of her friends.” (11:2)
This instruction follows the assurance G-d made to Moshe at the burning bush (3:21-22), and the promiseG-d made to Avraham in Bereishit 15:14.
From the text in our Torah portion, it does not seem that the Israelites acted upon these instructions until later, after the plague of the Death of the Firstborns had taken its toll.
In 12:29-32, the plague takes place, the quite-defeated Paroh locates Moshe to tell him to take all his people and animals and to go worship their G-d as they had been requesting.
In 12:33, the Egyptian people seem to chase the Israelites with an unspoken “good riddance,” with the hope that the source of their misery — the Israelite/Hebrew slaves and theirG-d — might not return.
The following verses detail the last things they did before leaving: 34 “The people took their dough before it could rise. Their leftover dough was wrapped in their robes [and placed] on their shoulders.” 35 “The Israelites [also] did as Moses had said. They requested silver and gold articles and clothing from the Egyptians.” 36 “G-d made the Egyptians respect the people, and they granted their request. [The Israelites] thus drained Egypt of its wealth.”
If we look back at the quote from 11:2 (first paragraph above), we see they were not commanded to request clothing. G-d only mentioned gold and silver articles, so how could 12:35 suggest they did as Moshe had told them?
Toldot Yitzchak warns us not to bring proofs from 3:22 when G-d indicated they will be leaving with clothing as well, because that was more of a strategy G-d was aware of than a commandment, the people would ask for clothing to give them more of a chance to delay the Exodus until the morning, rather than be forced to leave at night.
When 12:35 says, “the Israelites did as Moshe had said,” Toldot Yitzchak explains, this refers not to their borrowing of items but to the more important command of not leaving their homes until the morning (12:22). Just because Paroh had come out to see Moshe does not mean the danger had passed and that people could come outside.
If their “fulfillment of Moshe’s instruction” consisted of staying indoors, where did they get the idea to request clothing? As far as we can tell, the people were never instructed to request anything other than silver and gold. [Interestingly, Targum Yonatan leaves out the request for clothing in his interpretation of the verse.]
Toldot Yitzchak says there were two groups — “ha’am” — the masses who were unaware of proper protocol and left their homes in the night time when the Egyptians forced them out (12:33), and the “Bnei Yisrael” proper, who knew the rules, and would not budge from their homes until morning came. But as they were being prodded, they began requesting that clothing be brought to them, insisting they could not leave without proper attire.
Thus, those who asked for clothes were not following specific instructions to load up their suitcases, but were using delay tactics to stall until the morning when all of the people would leave together.
How long does it take to decide which jewelry you want to borrow? Not very long. Most people think, “If it is expensive, I’ll take it.”
Clothing is a different matter. Many people will only take clothing that looks nice on them, no matter how nice the clothing may be. Clothing is more a matter of personal taste than is jewelry.
Now we are left to understand the nature of the requests for the items in question.
Commentaries differ, and provide an entire range of interpretations as to whether the Israelites were requesting or “borrowing,” seeking compensation or a severance package, taking booty from their defeated enemies, accepting a peace offering for the G-d who defeated Egypt, or even giving cause to be chased after for the final pounding in the Red Sea.
No matter the specific interpretation, it is hard to imagine the word “she’eilah,” meaning, “borrow,” in this context. In many places in the Bible, a “she’eilah” is a flat out request with no intent to return anything. And in the context of freeing slaves (Bereishit 31, Devarim 15 and Devarim 23), rather than leaving empty-handed, a slave is supposed to be let free with compensation for years of labor or toil, minimally with the means to make good on his own in the short-term.
For slaves with meager possessions, wealth is certainly warranted. To provide a sense of dignity, proper clothing is essential. While I don’t know what happens in real life, I’ve seen films in which “rehabilitated” prisoners are release from prison with a business suit to give them a sense of dignity, so they can begin to make a go of their new lives looking like a mentch.If the clothes really do “make the man” (or woman), then having and wearing nice clothing is an important step in achieving emancipation.
And when those same garments are flattering, yet modest (says Jewish tradition), they certainly help bring out the essence of the person wearing them.