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    Compensation after the catastrophe – Bo

    Taking the gold and silver from Egypt, by Simon Fokke, 1748

    Taking the gold and silver from Egypt, by Simon Fokke, 1748

    Could anything compensate the Israelites for generations of degradation and enslavement in Egypt?

    We would have said no, but the Torah has a different idea: “Speak now,” it says, “in the ears of the people, and let every man ask of his neighbour and every woman ask of her neighbour, vessels of silver and vessels of gold” (Ex.11:2).

    Not that this is an unexpected corollary of the departure from Egypt. God had already told Moses that the people would not leave empty-handed (Ex.3:21-22). Even Abraham knew that his descendants would leave “with great substance” (Gen.15:14).

    The question is, however, did the Egyptians give the silver and gold willingly?

    The Mechilta says yes; the Israelites hardly needed to say a word before the Egyptians showered them with gifts – presumably out of remorse for treating them so badly for so long. It was a sort of reparations.

    But can even a large quantity of precious metal make up for years of servitude, of being denied independence, dignity and opportunities to enjoy life? And how about the lives lost – and the future generations that would never now be born?

    A similar question has arisen countless times since the Holocaust. Some survivors of those terrible years indeed refused to apply for or accept monetary reparations; nothing could compensate them for what they had suffered.

    But there is another view, and this is what the Mechilta is hinting at.

    The oppressors cannot make good what they have ruined or destroyed, but if they recognise their sin they can at least do more them simply say so. If their repentance is genuine, they can try to articulate it in concrete terms.

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