דבר נא באזני העם וישאלו איש מאת רעהו ואשה מאת רעותה כליכסף וכלי זהב.
“Please speak to the people, and each person should borrow from his friend, and each woman should borrow from her friend, silver and gold vessels.” (Shemos 11:2)
Before the Jewish people left Egypt, they were instructed to “borrow” gold and silver vessels and other valuables from their Egyptian neighbors.
Rashi comments: “The verse begins with the word please, making this a request [rather than a command] as if to say: ‘Please urge the people to do this, so that the tzaddik Avrohom should not complain that the promise about their servitude was fulfilled, but the promise that they would leave with riches was not fulfilled.’”
The commentators ask about this: Why would the people need to be urged to gather riches? Few people would refuse such an opportunity. Most people would be more than happy to fulfill this request and wouldn’t need to be asked twice. From Rashi’s comment, it seems as if the Jewish people were reluctant to do this and had to be urged to fulfill Hashem’s request.
Rabbi Shimshon Wertheimer zt”l explains this as follows: A person who struggles with poverty will usually not have any special difficulties in keeping the Torah and mitzvosdue to his financial struggles. On the other hand, when a person becomes wealthy, he suddenly faces many spiritual challenges and few people retain their same level of observance after striking it rich. This concept is expressed in the Torah (Devarim 32:15): “And the Jewish people became fattened [with good food] and they rebelled.”
Rashi is telling us that the Jewish people were afraid of the challenge of wealth. He interprets Rashi’s words to mean that their ancestor Avrohom would see that during “their servitude they fulfilled” the Torah and mitzvos, but when they had “riches, they did not fulfill” the Torah and mitzvos. The Jewish people actually had good reason to be fearful, because we see that not long after receiving the Torah,they used the gold of the Egyptians to create the Golden Calf. The challenge of serving Hashem when one is wealthy is very difficult indeed.
There may have been another reason why the Jewish people were afraid of taking the Egyptians’ valuables. Each person’s possessions carry the essence of its owner, and the Egyptian valuables had within it the essence of the Egyptian nation. The Jewish people did not want this influence in their midst, so they refused to take those valuables. Hashem therefore told Moshe to urge them in His name to take the Egyptian valuables, thereby making it a mitzvah to gather these fortunes. This way, the valuables became an essential part of performing a mitzvah, thus clearing it from any spiritual impurities. This is why it was necessary to urge the people to take the gold and silver vessels, making it a mitzvah, so that Avrohom would no longer complain that the riches ruined the Jewish people, because money that was gathered for a mitzvah no longer has the power to corrupt its owner.
If so, how was it possible that the Jewish people used the gold that they gathered from the Egyptians to create the Golden Calf?
After the splitting of the sea, Moshe had to force the Jewish people to leave the shore of the Red Sea. Rashi explains that the sea cast out the dead bodies and chariots of the Egyptians. These were covered in gold and silver,and the Jews tried to gather as much as they could from these fortunes. When it was time to leave the shore, Moshe had to pull the people away from these riches. The spoils they collected at the sea were much more than the riches they collected in Egypt from their neighbors.
When Moshe commanded the Jews to leave the shore, they were no longer permitted to take from the spoils of the sea. Therefore, the additional gold and silver that they collected had within it the impurities of the Egyptians. With this impure gold, the Jewish people created the Golden Calf. We know that the women refused to give their gold for the impure image, because their gold was collected in Egypt and not at the sea, making it pure gold used for a mitzvah.
The merit of every act depends on the person’s intentions. When someone earns money in order to use it to serve Hashem and do mitzvos, then his money will indeed help him achieve this goal.