Who’s Our Friends? by Rabbi Avi Pollack

(2003/5763)

Before the Exodus from Egypt, Moshe instructed the Jews to “borrow” gold and silver utensils from their Egyptian neighbors.  When Moshe delivered this proposal to his people, he did not merely identify the Egyptian oppressors as neighbors but surprisingly called them “rayim,” “friends” (See Shemot 11:2).  This description is difficult to understand.  If the Egyptians can be described as “rayim,” how can Chazal repeatedly exclude Nochrim from various Halachot based on the Torah’s usage of the word Raya (friend) or Achicha (brother)?  For example, in Devarim 22:3 the Torah requires that one return “your brother’s lost items.”  The Gemara in Bava Metzia deduces from the term “brother” that a Nochri’s lost item is not included in the Torah’s command.  Nochrim are not generally considered to be the “friends” or “brothers” of the Jewish people, and therefore this and other Halachot do not apply to them.  Why then does Moshe use the term “Raya” to describe the Egyptians? 

Rabbeinu Bachya answers that before the Jews accepted the Torah at Sinai “all people were friends as one” and it was appropriate to describe any citizen of the world as a “raya.”  Only after the Nochrim rejected the Torah and the Jews accepted it did the term “raya” acquire an exclusive connotation.  The spiritual demands of the Torah force us to distinguish ourselves from the Nochri world. 

In other respects, Jews and Nochrim are very much alike.  Rabbeinu Bachya seems to contradict himself later in Sefer Shemot.  In the Aseret Hadibrot  (Shemot 20:16) Hashem commands the Jews not to testify falsely against one’s “raya.”  Rabbeinu Bachya comments there, that the term “raya” was carefully used (as opposed to “achicha,” “brother”) to highlight the fact that one may not even offer false testimony against a Nochri.  Now if it is true that once the Jews accepted the Torah, “raya” implies a Jewish fellow.  How can the word “raya” in the Ten Commandments include a Nochri?  My father in law, Dr. Sam Juni suggests that before the Ten Commandments were complete the Jews could not have possibly accepted the Torah.  Only after all the commandments were completely communicated did the Jews categorically commit themselves to accept the yolk of Heaven.  At this point, therefore, Rabbeinu Bachya can accurately claim that the term “raya” includes Nochrim.

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