It is very odd that the Torah takes time to tell us all about G-d’s plans for enriching the Jews with Egyptian gold.
G-d first tells Moshe, in their first conversation at the burning bush, that
When you go, you shall not go empty. Every woman shall borrow from her neighbor, and from her who sojourns in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments, and you shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters (Ex. 3:21)
And then, after all but the last plague:
Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man borrow from his neighbor, and every woman from her neighbor, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold. (Ex. 11:2)
And then what happens? The people do as they are told….
and they borrowed from the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments (Ex. 12:35)
And here is an obvious question: why does it really matter that the Jews got gold and silver from the Egyptians? Are these material possessions really important, and if so, why? And what do garments have to do with anything?!
The answer is that “jewels of silver and jewels of gold and garments” are in fact part of Jewish lore: they come from the very first story of an engagement between man and wife – Avraham’s servant brings out
Jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah (Gen. 24:53)
The gift matters! When G-d told the Jewish people to enrich themselves with silver, gold, and garments, he was recreating for them the engagement of Isaac and Rivkah! In that final act before leaving their home in Egypt to travel and “meet” Hashem at Sinai, the Jewish people would be receiving the same engagement present that their foremother, Rivkah, had received before she left her home to travel to marry Isaac.
[In both cases, the messengers (Avraham’s servant and the Egyptians) were non-Jewish (and unnamed) agents acting on behalf of the principals – what really mattered was the promise of a marriage between the source behind the jewels, and the recipient.]
So far, so good. But then what happens to this jewelry? At Sinai, when Moshe does not come down when expected, Aharon tells the Jewish people to bring their gold – and it is made into the golden calf.
But Aharon does not merely tell the Jews to bring their gold. Instead, he uses a word only found one place earlier in the Torah:
And Aaron said unto them: ‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.’ (Ex. 32:2)
Where did this gold come from? It was the very same gold that G-d had “given” the Jews via the Egyptians! Indeed, the text makes this quite clear when it uses the same phrase “your sons and your daughters” that He had used when promising the gold to Moshe in the first place!
What has happened here? At the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jewish people took the rings that they had received as a betrothal gift – and instead of merely taking it off, they broke the rings off. Gold is not so easily repaired – once broken, it needs remaking from liquid form. The breaking of a ring is analogous to breaking a relationship, severing the link between two entities that is so close that it is impossible to tell where one person ends and the other begins.
How do we know the word can mean the end of a relationship? The very first time the word “break” (Parak) is used was when Isaac tries to comfort a crying Esau, after Jacob stole his blessing. Isaac says:
And by thy sword shalt thou live, and thou shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt break loose, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck. (Gen. 27:40)
No more would things continue as they had done: once a ring is broken, whatever relationship had once existed, ceases. Breaking a ring is how one destroys a relationship – whether between G-d and man, man and wife, or even between brothers. Perhaps Aharon knew this; when he used such a strong word, he may have been trying to signal that breaking off the engagement gold would be tantamount to ending the betrothal between G-d and the Jewish people.
And so it proved. When Isaac was betrothed to Rivkah, their relationship continued for the rest of their lives. But both with Esau and the golden calf, once the engagement ring was broken, the relationships were never the same again.
With Ze’ev Hall, 2012