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  • Writer's pictureAyelet HaShachar

‘Vessels of Silver and Gold’ - reparations and responsibility

The following Dvar Torah on Parshat Bo was given by Donny Janks on 31 January 2020.

In the aftermath of World War II, Germany offered to pay reparations to victims of the Nazi regime. This offer was met by an incredibly heated debate in Israel. In fact, the controversy was so great that there was actually speculation in the Israeli media that acceptance of the reparations would cause a civil war.

When Prime Minister Ben Gurion ultimately agreed to accept the reparations, riots took place and there was a march on the Knesset which resulted in the Knesset building being stoned. Though peace and order was eventually restored, it is clear that for many Israelis at the time it was despicable to think that any "blood money" should be accepted.

A similar phenomenon is found in this week's Torah portion, Bo. Bo begins with the final three plagues - locusts, darkness and the death of the firstborn, following which Pharaoh finally relents and lets the people go. The Jewish people are being led out of Egypt to freedom, but before their departure, God tells Moses to encourage each Jew to take from his Egyptian neighbour vessels of silver and vessels of gold (Exodus 11:2).

Rabbi Yehuda Appel, from whom the opening of this Dvar is borrowed, raises an interesting question. Since the Jews would be traveling into the desert, why did they need gold and silver?

Rashi explains that a promise had been made centuries earlier to the patriarch Abraham: After his descendants would suffer many years of bondage in Egypt, they would be freed, and in the process, they would despoil the Nile Kingdom of much of its wealth.

A fascinating Midrash describes why this despoiling of Egypt was fair and proper. The Midrash goes: thousands of years after the Exodus, the Egyptian people came before Alexander the Great and registered a claim against the Jewish people, demanding that they should be compensated for all the wealth that the Israelites had seized from their forefathers a millennium earlier. In response to this claim, Gevia ben Psesia, acting as the Jews' defense attorney, noted that the Israelites had not received any wages for all the centuries they toiled as slaves in Egypt. Thus, justice demanded that the Jewish people be granted a form of reparations - i.e. compensation for the exploitation they had undergone at the hands of the ancient Egyptians.

And so we have it - Jewish justification for the justness of reparations. But let’s not stop there. Reading this Midrash, I couldn’t help but think back to last Sunday when around 50,000 Sydneysiders marched from Hyde Park to Victoria Park in one of the largest Invasion Day rallies we’ve seen. The signs and slogans were numerous, but one recurring message was that of “Pay the Rent”.

For those who are unaware, Pay the Rent is a campaign that has existed since the 1970s which asks non-Indigenous Australians living on this land to first recognise the impacts of colonisation, and to then give money to grassroots Indigenous groups, charities and causes. The Jewish people gathered gold and silver on the way out of Egypt as compensation for their years of labour, just as Indigenous Australians through the Pay the Rent are asking for compensation for 250 years of colonial rule.

Which brings me back to the story with which I started this drash. Sure, Rashi gives us an explanation as to why reparations might be a just idea. But there’s more to it.

I would guess that almost every Israeli in the aftermath of World War II would have agreed that the Jewish people deserved recognition and compensation for the atrocities happened upon our people. What I imagine was rather the source of the anger was the form in which that compensation was delivered. On paper, the agreement reached with Germany stated that the German government would compensate the Jewish people for “material damages... caused by Germany through the Holocaust." In other words, this money for damages to personal property.

But how can you put a price on the loss of life and culture? How could any amount of gold and silver claimed by the Jewish people have justly compensated them for the damage done by centuries of enslavement? And today, how can mere money repair the damage experienced by our First Nations people? That’s why both campaigns such as Change the Date and Pay the Rent campaigns live on - they demand not just financial compensation, but widespread recognition and change. Money isn’t enough, although it is an important start.

Just as we are commanded each Pesach to see ourselves as having personally been freed from Egypt, I think we should also see ourselves as responsible for learning from this Exodus. Whether we like it or not, in Australia we are passively like the Egyptians, benefiting from another community’s suffering. With January 26 so fresh in the calendar, I encourage you all this week and into the future to seek out grassroots Indigenous causes and to Pay the Rent, just as the Jewish people took with them gold and silver as they entered the desert. Shabbat shalom.

Donny is a musician, Jewish educator and member of the Ayelet HaShachar team.

Read more on the Pay the Rent campaign here:

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