Parshas Shemos 5759

18 TEVES 5705 (January 3, 1945)
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20 TEVES 5740


"And a new Pharaoh arose in Egypt who did not know of Yosef. And he said to his people, this nation of Israel is becoming greater and mightier than us. Let's deal wisely with them, lest they multiply and side with our enemies in an attempt to make war, and wrest our land from us. And they appointed authorities who crushed their spirits with hard labor, by forcing them to build the storage cities of Pithom and Ramses. But the more they oppressed them, the more they certainly multiplied and spread out. The Egyptians dreaded the Israelites because of this." (Shemos 1:8-12)

". . .lest they multiply (pen yirbeh). . ." ". . . they certainly multiplied (ken yirbeh) . . .". Says Rashi, Pharoah said "pen yirbeh", lest they multiply, but Hashem said "ken yirbeh", they certainly will multiply.

This gives us an insight into the verse in Psalms 2:8, ". . .and You broke the teeth of the wicked."

The letters "Pay" and "Khof" are very similar. The difference between them is a little tooth in the belly of the "Pay". When you break off the tooth in the "Pay", it becomes a "Khof".

Pharaoh wanted to break the bodies and spirits of Bnei Yisrael in order to stop their population explosion. But Hashem "broke the teeth" of the nefarious ruler. The harder he tried to oppress Bnei Yisrael, the more they multiplied. Pharaoh said, "pen yirbeh", let's keep them from multiplying. Hashem broke his teeth, and "pen yirbeh" became "ken yirbeh", they certainly multiplied.


"The Egyptians made the children of Israel do backbreaking labor." (Shemos 1:13)

It is difficult to understand how the Egyptians succeeded in gaining control over the Children of Israel and in subjugating them into slavery. The Israelites were numerous and powerful, and they inspired dread in the hearts of the Egyptians who witnessed their amazing population growth with sextuplet births.

Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, the Ramban, (on Shemos 1:10) in what is generally held to be the classic description of a society's descent into anti-semitism, explains that the Egyptians tried to deceive the Israelites. It would have been crude and tasteless for the Egyptians to initiate a genocide against the Israelite residents. After all, the Egyptians' current prosperity was due solely to the wisdom and efforts of Yosef and the blessings which Yaacov returned to the land. In addition, the Egyptians wouldn't be amenable to unwarranted violent action against their Israelite neighbors. Moreover, the Israelites, with their great numbers and might, could have easily begun a revolt against the Egyptians. Goshen was a relative fortress.

So Pharaoh devised a plan to gradually subjugate the Israelites in such a way that they wouldn't feel it until it was too late. They disguised their hatred towards the Israelites with measures designed to set them apart from the Egyptian public.

First the Egyptians imposed a tax; for a tax levied on foreign nationals living on their soil would certainly not be misconstrued as unfair. King Solomon himself did a similar thing. (Kings I, 9:21-22)

Pharaoh's next step was to command the midwives to throw the male infants into the Nile. (Shemos 1:15) The mothers themselves didn't even realize what was happening.The midwives simply told them that the child was stillborn.

Later, the whole nation was invited by Pharaoh to take any Israelite male infant and dispose of him in a similar manner. (Shemos 1:22) If a father complained to the Egyptian authorities, he was told to bring witnesses and that appropriate punishment would be exacted on the murderer. Obviously, nothing ever came of these "investigations". Still, the Israelites didn't realize that what was being perpetrated against them was part of a master plan. They believed that these acts were being carried out by individual Egyptian anti-semites.

Soon it became socially acceptable to display outright cruelty and violence towards the Israelites. Their status in society had deteriorated to such a level, that the Egyptians felt free to search Jewish homes for hidden male children in order to pitch them into the Nile. (see Shemos 2:3) (See Yalkut Meam Loez, The Torah Anthology, Exodus I pages 30-35 for a detailed description of this period in English.)

There was one exception in this scenario; the Tribe of Levi. The tribe of Levi was never subjugated at all. There are a number of possible explanations:

  1. They were destined to serve in the Beis HaMikdash and therefore it wasn't fitting for them to be enslaved.

  2. The Levi'im were the scholars and priests of the Israelites, and provided Pharaoh with a core of intellectuals and advisors. Therefore they were allowed to maintain their own academies/yeshivos.

  3. Levi never abandoned the rite of circumcision. The Egyptians abhorred circumcision and maintained that it impaired a man's fertility. When the other tribes became Egyptized and stopped circumcising their children, the Egyptians looked at their subsequent population increase as a natural consequence. So the Egyptians subjugated them in a natural way with harsh labor. Levi continued to circumcise, and nevertheless experienced a population increase. The Egyptians looked upon that as a supernatural occurrence and therefore decided that any attempts to subjugate them would be in vain.

  4. Before Yaacov died he commanded the Levi'im to carry his bier, since they were destined in the future to bear the Holy Ark. Since the Egyptians saw that Yaacov had conferred on Levi a special status, the Egyptians also treated them differently. When Levi didn't respond to the first call for voluntary labor, (see below) the Egyptians decided to leave them alone.

  5. Furthermore, Hashem promised to Avraham that his descendants would inherit Eretz Yisrael and would also be enslaved in Egypt. (Bereishis14:12-16) Since Levi did not receive an inheritance of land like the rest of the tribes, they were exempted from subjugation.

Pharaoh commenced the final stage of his plan against the Israelites by exhorting all of Egypt to come out in a show of patriotism to begin a mass Egyptian building program. Impassioned speeches throughout the country convinced one and all of the importance of a strong Egypt. The first day, every citizen came to participate (with the exception of the tribe of Levi). In order to dispel anyone's claim that brick-making was below their dignity, Pharaoh himself took a brick-mold in hand that first day and began to make bricks. The Israelites, eager to show that they were better workers than their Egyptian counterparts, worked with tremendous motivation and produced twice as many bricks as the Egyptians. What they didn't know, was that Pharaoh's accountants were keeping track of the day's production. When they came back the next day to work, they were alone with the Egyptian taskmasters; no Pharaoh, no Egyptians. Yesterday's production became today's quota. Thus the subjugation began in earnest.

At first glance, the role of Levi seems to be exceptionally praiseworthy. They remembered all along that they were Israelites, and didn't forget what it meant to be a descendant of Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaacov. They held on to their identity even when the rest of the nation was losing theirs. Nevertheless, the role of the Tribe of Levi needs re-examination.

In Parshas Ba'aloscha, (Bamidbar 8) we find the account of the inauguration of the tribe of Levi into divine service.

"God spoke to Moshe saying, take the Levi'im from amongst the rest of the Israelites and purify them. In order to purify them, you must sprinkle on them the water of the sin offering after they have shaved their entire bodies with a razor. Then they should immerse their bodies and their clothing and they will be clean." (Numbers 8:5-7)

The Levi'im had to have their bodies completely shaved. (Some commentators maintain that they kept the beard and sidelocks in accordance with the mitzvah in Vayikra 19-27.) Rashi explains why such an unusual purification rite was needed to inaugurate them into service. The Levi'im took the place of the first-born who were originally supposed to officiate in the Tabernacle and later in the Beis HaMikdash. Since the first-born participated in the incident of the Golden Calf, they forfeited their special privilege.

The Levi'im, as heirs to the divine service, had to effect an appropriate atonement for the first-born. The first-born served a false god (the Golden Calf), and the service of one who does so is called "the sacrifice of the dead". A leper (metzorah) is equated by the Talmud as one who is dead, and a leper requires full body shaving as part of his purification. Therefore, the Levi'im also required full body shaving.

But what is the connection of the Levi to the leper? The Levi'im themselves didn't do anything that deserved shaving. It is really the first-born, the ones who served false gods, who should have been shaved.

The Talmud (Nedarim 64b) says that there are four peopele who are considered as dead even while still alive; a poor person, a leper, a blind person, and one without children. A dead person is cut off from the Source of life. The body is there but the connection to the Source is not. A poor person has no source of sustenance, and a blind person is cut off from society. One with no children is without continuation; without a link in the chain of Jewish life. The leper, suffering because he said slander, (Loshon Hara) voluntarily cuts himself off from society. His punishment includes banishment, a period of solitude in the desert giving him time to contemplate his actions. When the leprosy subsides, he must bring an offering and have his entire body shaved. The practice of Avodah Zara, serving false gods, is called the "sacrifice of the dead". Turning one's attention to false gods, is the ultimate severance of the connection with the Source of all life. This is the connection between the leper and the worshipper of false gods.

Yet, why did the tribe of Levi require such a purification? They didn't participate in the incident of the Golden Calf. Quite the opposite. When Moshe Rabbenu returned from Mt. Sinai, only Levi rallied around him to exact vengeance on the perpetrators of the Golden Calf. (Shemos 32:26-29)

Was there nothing they could have done to prevent it? It was a mob run wild. They killed numerous people who tried to prevent them from making the Calf. Even Aaron knew that he couldn't stop them, therefore he tried only to stall them. Nevertheless, the allegation against the Levi'im stands, and they needed the purification of a leper. Therefore there must be some blemish hidden in the past of the Tribe of Levi; a blemish which is a result of being cut off from Klal Yisrael. Somehow they didn't do enough to try to prevent the Golden Calf from happening. They allowed their brothers to break their connection to Hashem.

This relationship can be explained by a parable. Imagine a poster taped to the wall. It may be falling down and hanging only by one corner. But as long as that corner is still attached, then we say the poster is still attached to the wall. If the Children of Israel did participate in the incident of the Golden Calf, and Levi did not, then Klal Yisrael must still be united with Hashem, with Levi, like the corner of the poster, insuring the connection. If the people as a whole were still connected to Hashem, then how could the incident of the Golden Calf have occurred?

The tribe of Levi was always different from the rest of the Tribes. In Egypt, as explained above, they were exempted from the hardships and misery of slavery. With the exception of Moshe Rabbenu who was also a Levi (Shemos 2:11), we don't find that they did anything to try to alleviate the suffering of their brothers. In seems as if they were aloof from the rest of Klal Yisrael. Levi, being the scholars and the Tzaddikim of those generations held themselves distant from the rest of the people. Therefore, even though Levi didn't participate in the Golden Calf, by distancing themselves from the people, they allowed the last shreds of connection to Hashem to be severed, in essence paving the way to the Golden Calf. The Levi'im must share the responsibility since they didn't get more involved by taking the risks necessary to help their brethren. This prevented the influence of their holiness to affect the Klal.

The innovation of Chassidus is the development of the close and direct relationship between the people and the Tzaddik. The people need to attach themselves to the Tzaddik, and the Tzaddik in turn assumes responsibility for the spiritual and physical well-being of his people. His actions and prayers can then elevate and purify those who bind their service of Hashem up with his.

Notice the difference in the relationship of Moshe Rabbenu to Klal Yisrael. Even though he was reared in the royal palace of the Pharaoh, he didn't forget who he was. He went out to see for himself what the situation of the Israelites was. (Shemos 2:11) As a result of his defense of his brothers, he was even forced to flee Egypt for his life.

After the incident of the Golden Calf, Hashem called Moshe Rabbenu and informed him that this People had transgressed unforgivably. He wanted to wipe them out and start all over again; with Moshe Rabbenu as the father of a new generation. Moshe Rabbenu didn't accede. "If you are going to wipe them out", he declared, "You must take me too. My fate is bound up with theirs." Hashem accepted Moshe's plea and revealed to him the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, a guaranteed formula for forgiveness. On account of his attachment to them, Klal Yisrael inherited the merit of Moshe Rabbenu and were spared any further the punishment for the Golden Calf.

This relationship is spelled out in the continuation of the section which deals with the purification of the Levi'im. It is clear from the following, that the Levi'im learned an important lesson from the experience with the Golden Calf. After the shaving, a burnt offering and sin offering were brought.

"And the Levi'im shall be brought to the front of the Tabernacle and assemble the entire Israelite community. And the Levi'im shall be brought before Hashem and the Israelites shall lay their hands on the Levi'im. Then Aaron shall wave the Levi'im like a wave offering to Hashem from the Israelites, and thereby will the Levi'im be specially designated to perform Hashem's service." (Bamidbar 8:8-12)

What is the reason for the repetition of the phrase, "And the Levi'im shall be brought . . ."? The Chasam Sofer (Bamidbar 8:8-12) answered the question in accordance with our idea. At first the Levi'im were brought only to the gate of the Tabernacle. Then the rest of the people were gathered.

Once the rest of the people were there and the Levi'im bound themselves together with them in a common bond of service, the Levi'im got a spiritual boost. The next verse reveals that they were brought in front of Hashem! But it doesn't end there. The people then strengthened their connection to Levi, the Tzaddik. They laid their hands on them, and didn't let go. With that unity, the Levi'im were to be elevated even higher. They became a wave offering to Hashem and were thus prepared for Divine Service.

The first-born did the Avoda Zara, but the tribe of Levi had to take upon themselves their purification. They had to shave like lepers who cut themselves off from the community. Shaving the entire body is the punishment for the one who relaxed his feeling of unity with his community. By healing this rift, the Tribe of Levi prepared themselves for the unique mission of representing Klal Yisrael in the Divine Service of the Tabernacle and Holy Temple, helping to bring all of Yisroel ever closer to Hashem and His service.
(Based on a talk by Rabbi A. Ch. Carmell of Jerusalem)

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