Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 21 February 2009 / 27 Shevat 5769

Gold and Swords

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman - www.rabbiullman.com
The Color of HeavenArtscroll


From: Ken Lipworth

Dear Rabbi,

I am puzzled as to how the Israelites produced the golden calf. These people were slaves. It seems totally incongruous that, as slaves, they would have owned any gold jewelry.

In a similar vein, from where did the Jews get swords to fight the battle against Amalek? It would seem highly unlikely that they took swords out of Egypt. As slaves, they would not have owned swords. Given the haste with which they fled, it would seem highly unlikely that they would have been able to beg, borrow or steal any as they fled.

It wouldn’t seem that they made weapons after the Exodus either. Even if they had the knowledge and skill to make swords, it would hardly seem likely that they would have had the time or the means to mine the ore, smelt the ore to produce the iron, and set up blacksmithing workshops to convert the iron into swords, since the encounter with Amalek happened shortly after their departure.

So, it seems incongruous that people who were cruelly oppressed slaves and so poor that they didn't have straw to build the bricks that Pharaoh wanted would own gold earrings and swords. Where did they get them from?

Dear Ken,

Your questions are very astute and rational. The answers happen to be explicit in the relevant Torah verses.

Long before the Israelites arrived in Egypt, G-d revealed to Abraham their future enslavement: “And He said to Abram, ‘You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them for four hundred years’” (Ex. 15:13). At the conclusion of that awesome night vision, G-d promised, “And also the nation that they will serve will I judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great possessions” (ibid v. 14).

Even before Moses returned to Egypt to redeem the Israelites, in the revelation of the burning bush, G-d outlined in detail how the events of the Exodus would unfold, including the details of the above promise of wealth: “And I will stretch forth My hand and smite the Egyptians with all My miracles that I will wreak in their midst, and afterwards he will send you out. And I will put this people’s favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and it will come to pass that when you go, you will not go empty handed. Each woman shall borrow from her neighbor and from the dweller in her house silver and gold objects and garments, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters and you shall empty out Egypt” (Ex. 3:20-22).

This is in fact what happened. Describing the eve of the Israelites departure, the Torah relates, “And the children of Israel did according to Moses’ order, and they borrowed from the Egyptians silver objects, golden objects, and garments. The Lord gave the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and they lent them, and they emptied out Egypt” (Ex. 12:35-36). This wealth was the Israelites’ just recompense for centuries of forced labor, affliction and servitude.

Interestingly, the Midrash cites an even more lucrative aspect of the Exodus. On the verse, “Moses caused Israel to journey from the Sea of Reeds” (Ex. 15:22, see Rashi), our Sages noted that Moses had to force them to go; otherwise they would have preferred to remain at the seashore. Why? In pursuing the Israelites, the Egyptian army bedecked their horses and chariots with every manner of jewel-studded gold and silver ornaments. After the raging waters collapsed back over the Egyptian Army, the Israelites found washed onto the seashore not only the lifeless warriors, but also their accompanying jewels and gold and silver. The Midrash thus remarks that the Jews (reluctantly) left the Sea of Reeds with even greater wealth than they had taken from Egypt.

Regarding the swords, here too the Torah explicitly refers to when the Israelites got them: “So G-d led the people around by way of the desert to the Reed Sea, and the children of Israel were armed when they went up out of Egypt” (Ex. 13:18). Despite the Midrashic explanations of the Hebrew word “chamushim”, the literal and plain meaning is referring to weapons. In fact Rashi says that the purpose of this verse is to answer your very question: Where did the Israelites get the swords to fight Amalek? From the Egyptians during the Exodus. Just as they received gold from them, they also received weapons. It is also quite possible that just as they gathered even more wealth at the Sea of Reeds, they salvaged even more weapons from the drowned Egyptian Army at the seashore than they had taken from Egypt.

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