Thursday, January 10, 2008

Table Talk -- Bo 5768

When does a taker help a giver? When he’s taking tzedakah.

The Torah tells us that after the plague of the firstborn, the Egyptians try to hurry the Jews out of their country. Yet, Moshe had them ready. Before they agree to leave the Jews, following Moshe orders, request the gold and the silver of their Egyptian (former) masters. The Torah tells us that Egyptians happily comply: וַה' נָתַן אֶת-חֵן הָעָם, בְּעֵינֵי מִצְרַיִם—וַיַּשְׁאִלוּם – “and God gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians so that they let them have what they asked,” וַיְנַצְּלוּ, אֶת-מִצְרָיִם – “and they despoiled Egypt.”

Clearly, the Jewish people ask for property and the Egyptians comply. Yet, the language at the end of the verse is striking. What does the Torah mean by the word וינצלו – “and they despoiled.” (By the way, “despoil” means “to sack or plunder”.) Rashi follows the translation of Onkelos, who translates the word to mean ורוקינו – “and they emptied out”. But this translation, while appropriate contextually, ignores the true meaning of the word. וינצלו seems to be some derivation of להציל – to save. If so, what do the Jewish people save? Why does the Torah use this strange word to describe the plunder of the wealth of Egypt?

We can answer this question by understanding the meaning of the word tzedakah – a word we translate as charity. In reality, tzedakah has nothing to do with charity. Rather, the word emanates from the word צדק – or truth and righteousness. When we give tzedakah, we acknowledge our understanding that God gives us plenty in order to share that bounty with others. Our giving isn’t just an act of kindness, but an act of righteousness, distributing the wealth of God the way He wishes us to.

The Midrash tells us that during the great famine in Egypt, Yosef gathered the entire wealth of the world into Egypt. When the Jews leave Egypt with all of her wealth, they return that wealth to the world – its rightful owner. So, while they plunder and empty Egypt, in a very real way, they “save” the Egyptians from the money that never really belonged to them in the first place.