When Hebrew words carry multiple meanings, it is sometimes difficult to tell which one is contextually correct. Such is the case with the Hebrew root “sha’al” which can mean either “to ask” or “to borrow.” The biblical narrative has God instructing Moses to tell the people to “sha’al” from his or her neighbor objects of silver and gold (Exodus 11:2). These objects would be taken by the Israelites when they leave Egypt. Eleventh century commentator Bahya ibn Pakuda argues that the word in question should be understood as “to ask” and not “to borrow.” His rationale is instructive.
Borrowing requires the borrower to return after use the object to its owner. But the Israelites had no intention of returning the silver and gold objects. Borrowing objects with no intention of returning them is deceitful, even criminal. Such deception, Rabbenu Bahya argues, would taint the exodus. The Israelites would not want to celebrate their freedom by committing a wrongful act. Hence, the Israelites would not be borrowing the silver and gold objects, but asking for them. The question that remains is why the Egyptians would entertain handing them over. Here Rabbenu Bahya offers two reasons. First, the Egyptians would be well-disposed towards the Israelites and would willingly comply: not because of amity or love but because they would be eager to do anything to relieve themselves of the plagues and accelerate an Israelite departure. Second, Rabbenu Bahya argues that there is the matter of back wages. The Israelites toiled for hundreds of years without compensation. It is only fair that at the end of their service, they should receive some kind of reparation.
There are two compelling reasons to accept Rabbenu Bahya’s interpretation. First, he assumes that no worthy project could ever begin with deception. Any movement built on a foundation of lies is not a movement worth supporting. Second, he sees the positive side of human nature. In the end, even the Egyptians are a fair-minded people. Pharaoh was cruel, as were his henchmen. But the ordinary Egyptian – according to Rabbenu Bahya – was reasonable and just.
Bahya’s interpretation says more about how Jews see the world than about how the world really is. But it is good to be on the side of the angels.