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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shemos: Dedicated to Torah or enslaved to Pharaoh


The Tribe of Levy was never enslaved to the Egyptians. They were destined to carry the Holy Ark. The Levites never got involved in any type of work and occupied themselves only with the study of Torah throughout the slavery in Egypt. Pharaoh issued a decree that only those who were working for him would be provided with food for themselves and their families. The other tribes followed the instructions of Jacob and divided their food rations and gave a portion to the Levites. Any person in the world can elevate himself to stand before G'd and dedicate his life to His service without worrying about any other concerns. We can all emulate our ancestors in Egypt and participate to ensure that the study of Torah shall never cease from the Jewish people.

Levites not enslaved

Towards the end of this week's parasha, the Torah relates how Moses and Aaron went to speak to Pharaoh to request that he send the Jewish people into the wilderness. In his arrogance, Pharaoh's initial reply was (Shemos 5:2) "Who is G'd that I should listen to His voice to send Israel out?" Later Pharaoh dismissed Moses and Aaron and said to them (Shemos 5:4) "Why do you disturb the nation from its work? Go to your own burdens?" Rashi quotes from the Midrash (Shemos Rabba 5:16) that Pharaoh was referring to whatever personal matters Moses and Aaron had to take care of for themselves, for they, as Levites, were never enslaved to the Egyptians. This, says the Midrash, is how Moses and Aaron were able to come and go without any special permission. The Ramban adds that since it was an accepted norm that every nation had sages to teach them their religion, Pharaoh agreed to spare the Levites, who were the sages and leading elders of the Jewish people. The Ramban concludes that this was all orchestrated by G'd. In this way, G'd ensured that at least one tribe of the Jewish people would remain faithful to the teachings of the Patriarchs.

Levites carry Holy Ark

Rabbeinu Chezkiah Bar Manoach in his commentary Chizkuni (Shemos 5:4) gives an additional explanation how the Tribe of Levy managed to avoid being enslaved together with the other tribes. He quotes the Talmud (Sotah 11b) that relates how Pharaoh ensnared the Jewish people with his smooth talk. Pharaoh invited all Jews to come and join him to build the fortifications of the Egyptian towns Pithom and Ramses. The Yalkut Shimoni (para.163) elaborates on this and explains that Pharaoh gathered all the Jews and said to them, "Please do me a favour and assist me." Then Pharaoh took a spade and started working. Immediately, everybody joined him as they saw how the King worked himself. The Jewish people were eager to participate and did their utmost to show their loyalty. That night, Pharaoh brought in his supervisors. He told them to count the bricks that had been produced throughout the day. He then instructed that this would be the expected quota on a daily basis. On that fateful day, says the Chizkuni, the Tribe of Levy remembered that their father Jacob, before his demise, had requested that all the tribes should carry his casket but for Levy and Joseph. Levy was exempt as his descendants were destined to carry the Holy Ark, and Joseph was exempt due to his status as king. Instead, Menashe and Ephraim were to take heir place (see also Rashi Bereishis 50:13). The Levites reasoned that if it was not proper for them to carry their father's casket, for sure they should not participate in building the Egyptian fortifications. Pharaoh had made it his original policy not to force anyone who did not volunteer to join him. And so it came about that the Tribe of Levy were never forced into slavery. Pharaoh only decreed to enslave those who had enjoined the work in the first place.

Levites study Torah

The Chizkuni concludes with an Aggadah that relates how Abraham taught all the Torah he had learned to Isaac, who in turn passed it on to Jacob. Jacob taught it to Levy and he and his children established Yeshivot in Egypt. The Levites never got involved in any type of mundane work. They occupied themselves only with the study of Torah, even throughout the slavery in Egypt (see also Bereishis Rabba 95:3). The Rambam (Laws of Idol Worship 1:3) also mentions how Abraham transmitted the Torah he had learned to Isaac, who taught it to Jacob. Says the Rambam, "Our Patriarch Jacob taught Torah to all his children. And he singled out Levy and appointed him to be the head of the Yeshiva, to teach the way of G'd and how to keep the mitzvot [that had been transmitted] from Abraham. And Jacob instructed his children to ensure that there should always be someone from the House of Levy who was in charge, so that the study of Torah would not be forgotten. This continued and grew in strength amongst the children of Jacob, and all those who followed them, and they became a nation of people who accepted G'd. This went on for a long time, but eventually the Jews were influenced by the Egyptian way of life and started serving idols just like their hosts. This happened to all the Jews, with the exception of the Tribe of Levy who stood firm and kept the mitzvot they had received from the Patriarchs." Concludes the Rambam, "And the Tribe of Levy never served idols."

Pharaoh's new decree

Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian explains that when Pharaoh saw how the Levites did not volunteer with the rest of the Jewish people, he found himself in a dilemma, as he wanted to enslave everyone. He had anticipated that all Jews would come running to offer their assistance. But now he saw that the Levites had not fallen for his ruse and he was looking for ways to trick them to join the forced labour. He could not reverse his original decree. He therefore issued a new decree that only those who worked for him would be provided with food for themselves and their families. He thought to himself that since Joseph was not around any longer to provide the growing Jewish population with their needs (see Bereishis 50:20-21) this would force the Levites to become enslaved as well, as they otherwise would starve.

Other tribes support Levites

However, the Tribe of Levy did not budge. They stayed in the land of Goshen and continued to study in the Yeshiva. Asks, Rabbi Lopian, so how did the Tribe of Levy survive? He quotes our sages who relate an amazing development. Despite the fact that most of the Jews had abandoned their observance of the mitzvot, and were enslaved under very harsh conditions, nevertheless they remembered Jacob's instructions to make sure that there should always be someone that studied Torah. They therefore divided their food rations and gave a portion to the Levites. And this continued throughout the whole exile in Egypt. Says Rabbi Lopian, how great were these Jews! They did not complain about their brothers who were free from slavery. On the contrary, they shared their meager rations with them. They could easily have claimed that the Levites should go and work themselves to earn their own food. It would have been understandable, had they refused to deprive their families from the little food they received from Pharaoh. However, they all recognized the importance to make sure that the Holy Tribe of Levy should dedicate themselves totally to the study of Torah and not be involved in building fortifications for Pharaoh.

Any person can elevate himself

The Rambam (Laws of Shmitta and Yovel 13:13) writes that not only the Tribe of Levy has the ability to dedicate themselves to a life of Torah study and service of G'd. Any person in the world can elevate himself to stand before G'd and dedicate his life to His service without worrying about any other concerns. Such a person, says the Rambam, will be sanctified to the highest degree of holiness and he will merit to be provided for in this world for just as G'd made sure to provide for the Kohanim and the Levites. This is what the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 3:6) says, "Whoever accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah, from him will be removed the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly affairs."

Emulate our ancestors

Why is Torah study so important? The answer is that the Torah is the raison d'?tre of the world. As the Zohar (Shemos 161b) states: "G'd used the Torah as the blueprint when He created the world." In the beginning of his commentary, Rashi quotes from the Midrash Rabbah (Bereishis 1:6) that G'd created the world for the sake of Torah. This means that the world's existence depends upon those who study Torah and observe its laws, for only through them does the world reach its purpose. In the beginning of Parashas Nitzavim (Devarim 29:9-14) it says how G'd made an eternal covenant with the Jewish people, that we shall guard the Torah, study its laws and keep its commandments. And He promised us that the Torah will never be forgotten from the Jewish people. This, says the Talmud (Shabbos 138b), is the meaning of what it says (Devarim 31:21): "For it shall not be forgotten from the mouth of its [the Jewish nation's] offspring." However, says the Steipler Gaon, this promise was given to us as a nation. It is up to every individual to make sure that he and his children are part of this promise. Not everyone is able to dedicate their lives to the study of Torah as the Tribe of Levy. However, we can all spend some time daily to study Torah and emulate our ancestors in Egypt, and ensure that the study of Torah shall never cease from the Jewish people till the day comes when G'd will gather the exiles and elevate us all to be a Kingdom of Kohanim and a Holy Nation.

These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel