The loud chortling sound you may have heard last week was the collective mirth of countless Talmud-conversant Jews as they read about a lawsuit being prepared by a group of Egyptian expatriates in Switzerland.
The news came in the form of an interview, published in the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram Al-Arabi, with Dr. Nabil Hilmi, Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Al-Zaqaziq. The article was translated and made available by the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).
Dr. Hilmi's lawsuit is ostensibly being filed against "all the Jews of the world" for recovery of property allegedly stolen during the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt approximately 3300 years ago.
Citing the Torah, Dr. Hilmi is demanding, presumably on Egypt's behalf, the return of "gold, jewelry, cooking utensils, silver ornaments, clothing and more," not to mention interest thereon, taken by the ancestors of today's Jews "in the middle of the night" -- a "clear theft of a host country's resources and treasure, something that fits the morals and character of the Jews."
According to Dr. Hilmi's mathematical computations, which include an annual doubling in value of the material in question, 1,125 trillion tons of gold are owed by the Jews for each of the 300 tons he estimates was taken. And that doesn't include interest, which he claims, without explanation, should be calculated for 5758 years.
The merriment that greeted the report was born of the fact that the Talmud tells of precisely such a claim lodged over 2000 years ago in a world court of sorts presided over by none other than Alexander the Great.
The story is recounted in Sanhedrin 91a, where it is recorded that one Geviha ben Pesisa responded on the Jews' behalf. A paraphrase of the excerpt follows:
"What is your source?" Geviha asked the Egyptian representatives.
"The Torah," they replied.
"I too will invoke the Torah, which says that the Jews spent 430 years laboring in Egypt. Please compensate us for 600,000 men's work for that period of time."
"Very well," said Geviha, "I too will invoke the Torah, which says that the Jews spent 430 years laboring in Egypt. Please compensate us for 600,000 men's work for that period of time."
The Egyptians, the Talmud continues, then asked Alexander for three days during which to formulate a response. The recess was granted but the representatives, finding no counter-argument, never returned.
One supposes that Dr. Hilmi was unfamiliar with that page of Talmud, and perhaps with the underlying Biblical narrative on which it is based.
His gift to us, though, is more than a good laugh. For by sending us to Sanhedrin 91a, he provides us great consolation and hope in these trying times. For the very next account on that page concerns yet another historic lawsuit -- ancient and yet as timely as tomorrow's headlines.
This suit was filed by "the children of Ishmael and Keturah [Abraham's second wife, identified by the Midrash as Hagar]." Ishmael, of course, is claimed by many Arabs as their ancestor.
The plaintiffs in this suit claimed that Canaan, or the Land of Israel, was really theirs, as the Torah identifies their antecedents, no less than Isaac, to be progeny of Abraham.
Once again, Geviha responded on behalf of the Jews. "Your source?" he asked.
"The Torah," they responded.
"If so," he continued, "I too will invoke the Torah, which says that Abraham gave 'all that was his to Isaac; and to the children of his concubines [other wives], he gave [only] gifts, and he sent them away from Isaac his son... eastward'" [Genesis, 25:5,6].
Intriguingly, the Talmud mentions no Ishmaelite or Keturite reaction in Alexander's court -- not even a request for time to formulate a response. It's almost as if those plaintiffs simply refused to acknowledge the unarguable case that had been presented, as if they were utterly unable to countenance the idea that the Holy Land was in fact bequeathed in its entirety by Abraham to Isaac, who in turn bequeathed it to Jacob; and he, to his children after him, the Jewish people.
According to the Jewish religious tradition, though, the entire world, including Ishmael's descendants, will one day come not only to countenance the idea but to fully embrace it. That day has not yet arrived, to be sure, and it will not be military or political actions in the end that will bring it, but rather our merits as a people.
It will arrive, though. As the prophet Jeremiah tells our Rachel, one of the mothers of the Jewish people: "Restrain your voice from crying and tears from your eyes... for there is hope for you in the end ... the children will return to their borders."