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Parshas Bo (5772)

Reparations: Ancient Egypt and the Nazis

By Rabbi David Zauderer

Just after G-d tells Moses about the tenth and final plague - the Plague of the Firstborn - which He plans to visit upon the Egyptians, he requests the following: “Please speak in the ears of the people: Let each man request of his fellow [Egyptian] and each woman from her fellow [Egyptian] silver vessels and gold vessels” (see Exodus 11:1-2).

Rashi quotes the Talmud in Berachos 9a which explains that G-d beseeched Moses to ‘please speak’ to the Jewish people and prevail upon them to request valuables from their Egyptian neighbors because unless they did so, the soul of our forefather Abraham would have a complaint against G-d. He would say that G-d only carried out the prophecy that his offspring would be oppressed, but not the companion promise that the Jews would leave their captivity with great wealth (see Genesis 15:14-15).

This Talmudic passage is difficult to understand for two reasons. First of all, why was it necessary to ‘beg’ the Jewish people to take money from their Egyptian tormentors? Secondly, is it possible to say that G-d really didn’t want to keep the promise He made to grant the Jews great wealth when they left Egypt, but only did it so that Abraham wouldn’t complain?

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, in his commentary Oznayim LaTorah, writes that this Talmudic teaching of over 1500 years ago can only be fully understood in our own times after World War II when the question of whether or not Israel should accept Holocaust reparations from the Germans was on the table.

Public debate on this issue was among the fiercest in Israeli history. The entire country was split into two camps. Opposition to reparations came from both the right and the left of the political spectrum; both sides argued that accepting reparation payments was the equivalent of forgiving the Nazis for their crimes. Others maintained that it was a good idea to accept reparations. They felt that even though we can’t get our six million back, at least let the Germans pay for their crimes – especially considering the fact that they owed us so much money for all the forced labor they made our people do for them.

[Despite all the debates and protests, the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany was signed by West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett on September 10, 1952. According to the Agreement, West Germany was to pay Israel huge sums of money over many years for the slave labor and persecution of Jews during the Holocaust, and to compensate for Jewish property that was stolen by the Nazis.]

This same dilemma, explains Rav Sorotzkin, faced our Jewish ancestors over 3300 years ago as their ‘Egyptian Holocaust’ finally ended and they prepared to leave the country for good. No doubt many of them - whose brothers and sisters had been brutally enslaved, tortured and murdered, and who had seen their little babies thrown into the Nile River by the sadistic Egyptians to drown right in front of their eyes - would not even consider accepting what amounted to “blood money” from their non-Jewish neighbors. Still others felt that after working as slaves building pyramids for the Egyptians for 210 years, they deserved to take all the money of their enemy along with them as a small compensation for their hard labor.

G-d understood how painful it might be for some of the Jews to accept this money, and therefore did not obligate the entire nation across the board to take the Egyptians’ riches when they left the country. However, in order to fulfill the promise He had made to our ancestor Abraham that his descendants would leave Egypt with great wealth, G-d ‘beseeched’ the Jewish people to force themselves to take some money from their Egyptian neighbors.

There are still many Jews today – including actual survivors and others who are ‘holocaust-conscious’ - who have a hard time buying any German product, let alone accepting reparations from the German government. (Of course, for some, this is just an excuse. As Jackie Mason once quipped: “A Jew in Beverly Hills who can't afford a Mercedes-Benz, rather than admit he's short on cash, will say ‘You expect me to drive a German car? Those Nazi bastards!’")

Others will buy German products and say that today’s Germans are different and shouldn’t be penalized by what the Nazis did 65 years ago.

Many years ago I came up with a different reason why it’s okay to buy anything German. I was searching for a ‘kosher’ electric shaver (not all are – as those shavers which are as sharp as a razor might be forbidden. For more information on the electric shaver issue, click here) and I happened upon a Braun micro-foil shaver (which at that time was deemed kosher to use by some Rabbis). Only problem is that I had a long-standing policy not to buy any product made in Germany - and Braun is a German company. So I decided not to purchase it and to continue using my old, beaten-up shaver which was kosher but which gave me a lousy shave. Until one day while I was shaving I said to myself, “This is ridiculous! It’s not enough that the Nazis beat and killed six million of our people during the Holocaust – and now they want to beat us again by withholding a good shave from a Jew?! …. No! I will not let those Nazi animals score another victory!” And I promptly went out and purchased for myself a brand new German-made Braun electric shaver. (It’s amazing what the human mind can come up with when it craves something, eh?).

Of course, there are a great many Jews today – most of them young – for whom the Holocaust is not even a distant memory, and who therefore would have no problem at all with Germany and its products. This is quite sad and tragic.

But we dare not despair. Even as the last of the Holocaust survivors pass on, we will never forget what they went through, just as we will never forget the Egyptian Holocaust, as the Torah commands us to remember each and every day.

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