SALT - Sunday, 17 Tevet 5777 - January 15, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg

            According to a famous Midrashic tradition, noted by Rashi in his commentary to Parashat Shemot (5:4), the tribe of Levi was not enslaved by the Egyptians.  Although Pharaoh imposed slave labor upon the rest of the nation, he chose to exclude the tribe of Levi from this decree.  This explains why Moshe and Aharon, who were Leviyim, walked about freely without being forced to perform labor.

            Rav Yehonatan Eibshitz, in his Tiferet Yehonatan (to Shemot 6:14), suggests a novel explanation for why Pharaoh decided not to include the tribe of Levi in the enslavement decree.  He writes that Pharaoh’s astrologers – who, Chazal teach, had made a number of predictions regarding the future savior of Benei Yisrael – foresaw that the leader who would eventually arise to free the slaves would emerge from the tribe of Levi.  Pharaoh sought to prevent the emergence of a savior by absolving this tribe of the burden of enslavement.  It was inconceivable, Pharaoh figured, that somebody who did not feel the pain of slavery could arise to rescue them.  A person who did not suffer the humiliation and agony of bondage could not possibly muster the energy and passion needed to instigate an uprising.  Pharaoh was certain he could outsmart Benei Yisrael’s destiny by freeing all prospective leaders from the torment of slavery, so that they would not care enough to lead their people to freedom.

            Of course, Pharaoh was wrong.  Moshe, already as a young man, genuinely empathized with the plight of the slaves and felt their pain (Rashi, 2:11).  He indeed felt the physical suffering and emotional torment of persecution despite being excluded from the oppression.  Pharaoh underestimated the power of empathy and the extent of Benei Yisrael’s care and concern for one another.  A prospective Jewish leader is, indeed, somebody who can truly feel another’s pain despite not experiencing that person’s situation of hardship.  We are, in fact, able – and expected – to empathize with our fellow Jews’ suffering, and to make sacrifices and exert immense efforts to alleviate it.

(Based on an article by Rabbi Ira Ebbin)