At midnight of the fourteenth of Nissan, every firstborn in the entire land of Egypt suddenly died.
All at once, at on the 14th of Nissan, every single firstborn son in the entire land of Egypt suddenly died. Heartbroken screams shattered the night “for there was not a house where there was no corpse” (Exodus ). Pharaoh finally hurried to Moshe (Moses), crying, “Rise up, go out from among my people…!” (ibid. 31). The Egyptian people joined their leader in demanding that the Jewish people leave immediately.
The Jews had no problem acquiescing to the demands, but not before they, “carried out the word of Moshe; they requested from the Egyptians silver vessels, gold vessels, and garments. Hashem gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians and they granted their request -- so they emptied Egypt” (ibid. 35-36).
But that doesn’t make any sense -- was this what the Jews were thinking about at this pivotal moment? Stealing a little gold? Were the former slaves trying to take revenge on their oppressors? Is that all they could think about at the moment of a miraculous redemption that they had waited for some two hundred years?
No! If the Jews had been acting of their own accord, they would not have needed a divine commandment in order to get them started. Rather, G-d had planned on this event before the redemption had even begun. When the moment finally arrived, He commanded Moshe explicitly, “Please speak in the ears of the people: Let each man request of his fellow and each woman from her fellow silver vessels and gold vessels” (Exodus 11:2).
But now we have a new question: What was the purpose of this commandment? Why would G-d have the Jewish people request the possessions of other people with no intention of giving those possessions back?
The answer to this riddle lies in the accurate definition of the biblical Hebrew words used in the verse. The word used in the verse to mean “request” is “sha’al”. Modern Hebrew has redefined the word “sha’al” to mean “borrow”, but the original use of the word in the source text for all Hebrew vocabulary, the Torah, usually means “ask to have as a gift” rather than “borrow”. Whereas the word is used once, in a single verse in the entire Torah to mean “borrow”, it is used in hundreds of verses to mean “ask to have as a gift”. The grammatical rule to unlock the puzzle is this: Whenever the word “sha’al” follows the word “me’im”, it means “borrow”. Any other time, such as in our case, it means to “ask to have as a gift”.
G-d commanded the Jewish people to ask to have the Egyptians wealth in gold, silver, and textiles so that the Egyptians would learn that no profit comes from oppressing another human being. Justice demands that honest work be paid for. Even the entirety of Egyptian wealth would not have come close to the payment and damages owed the Jews after the hundreds of years of brutal enslavement and torture that the Egyptians had wreaked upon them.It appears that at the last moment before the Jewish people left, the Egyptians realized that giving the Jews their valuables was the least that they could do.
Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak