The word אח means brother and ריעה means friend. However, they are not just words with meanings; they have value and major ramifications.
In this week’s parsha Hashem told Moshe that he will bring one more plague on the Egyptians, and then the Jewish people would go free. However before they go Hashem told Moshe to ask the Jews to “please speak into the ears of the nation and each man shall ask his friend and each woman should ask her friend for silver and gold vessels” (Shemos 11:2).
The Rabbeinu Bachye explains that this request was not to borrow the vessels, but for the Egyptians to give it to them as a gift, and that Hashem would cause the Egyptians to find favor in their eyes to give the vessels to the Jews. The Rabbeinu Bachye goes on to say that this was not extortion because the labor the Jews went through were beyond any value or level of compensation. Furthermore, the Torah says that one should compensate his slave for the work he did when he goes free, see Devarim chapter 15. So what they were taking with them was the very least they deserved for the 210 years they were enslaved.
The Rabbeinu Bachye then points out a very fascinating fact regarding the language of the verse cited: why did Hashem refer to the Egyptians as “friends” of the Jews? The Rabbeinu Bachye answers: “The reason why the verse uses a language of friendship in both masculine and feminine, it seems to me, is because before the Torah was given all of mankind were unified as friends but after the Torah was given, when G-d offered the Torah to all the nations and languages and no one accepted it except the Jewish people, then all the non-Jews left the brotherhood and friendship circle and only the Jews were left in this circle, as they were called family and friends of G-D, as it is written in Psalms 122 ‘For the sake of my brother and my friend…’ It is also understandable why the Talmud teaches us by the verse ‘for all the lost objects of your brother’ (Devarim chapter 23) and also the verse ‘you shall not charge interest to you brother’ (ibid.) [that returning lost objects and not charging interest only applies towards Jews not non-Jews.]” (Click here for Hebrew text)
The word “friend” and “brother” aren’t just words, and don’t just have meaning; they have major ramifications in Jewish law. It is a concept, a status symbol. According to Torah law, if one finds a lost object and can assume it belongs to a non-Jew the object can be kept and one doesn’t have to run after the person who lost it, because he isn’t ‘your brother.’ (However if one knows the non-Jew in question, then it might be nice to return it, thereby sanctifying G-D’s name; but it is not mandatory). One may also charge interest to non-Jews because they aren’t ‘your brother.’
But imagine the time before the Torah was officially given, or if the whole world had accepted the Torah. Everyone was part of one big family; we all stemmed from Adam and Eve, and we are all brothers and friends. Everyone had intrinsic ramification and status symbols. Imagine: the Egyptians who tortured, enslaved, and murdered us – but they are still considered our friends? Everyone in the world, no matter how different they were, how much they did not get along, still, everyone was in the same circle of friendship and brotherhood, unified, which earned them the right to be called a ‘friend.’
If an Egyptian can still be a friend then all the more so, today, our Jewish brethren, no matter how far off they have gone, whether practicing Jews or non-practicing Jews, are all still brothers and friends. Not only is it a mitzvah to return a fellow Jew’s lost object and not charge them interest, but every Jew is responsible for one another; we are one unit, unified, and should feel a responsibility to take care of one another.
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder