Feel Their Pain

V’eileh shemos bnei Levi l’toldosam Gershon u’Kehas u’Merari (Shemos 6:16)

Prior to beginning the narrative of the redemption from Egypt, Parashas Va’eira first details the genealogy of its protagonists by recording the names of the children of the tribes of Reuven, Shimon and Levi, at which point the Torah proceeds to enumerate Levi’s descendants and traces them down to Moshe and Aharon. However, the Shelah HaKadosh points out that in listing Levi’s children, the Torah uses a peculiar expression. After mentioning the children of Reuven and Shimon, the Torah records, “These are the names of the sons of Levi in order of their birth: Gershon, Kehas and Merari.” Why does the Torah emphasize that these are the names of Levi’s sons, a point which is not mentioned in conjunction with the sons of Reuven and Shimon?

The Shelah HaKadosh answers based on Rashi’s comment (Shemos 5:4) that the tribe of Levi was exempted from Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Jewish people and therefore lived relatively easy and comfortable lives. As such, it would have been easy for them to isolate themselves in Goshen, learning Torah all day and turning a blind eye to the plight of their brethren.

Levi prophetically knew of this in advance, and in order to combat these feelings, he specifically gave his children names that would eternally remind them that even though they were not physically enslaved, they should still empathize with the plight of their suffering brethren, and it is for this reason that the Torah stresses the significance of the names he gave them. Specifically, the name Gershon alludes to the fact that the Jewish people were considered foreigners and temporary dwellers in Egypt, not fitting in and belonging there. Kehas hints to the fact that the backbreaking labor set the slaves’ teeth on edge, and Merari refers to the bitterness of their predicament in Egypt.

Harav Yissocher Frand notes that Levi’s plan was successful. The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 2:5) teaches that when Moshe observed the burning bush (3:2), his reaction was to deduce that if the bush can burn without being consumed, this is an indication that so, too, the Jewish people will be able to endure their slavery in Egypt without being destroyed. This episode occurred 40 years after Moshe left Egypt, yet even though he was removed from the pain of his brethren by both time and geography, their suffering was so much on his mind that his immediate response to seeing the burning bush was to connect the two seemingly disparate subjects. This is exactly what Levi intended when he gave his children names that represented the plight of the Jewish slaves so that they would constantly think about them and feel their pain, even though they themselves were exempt from the physical enslavement.

As an example of a contemporary application of this concept, the Chofetz Chaim’s wife once panicked when she awoke in the middle of the night to find his bed empty. When she discovered him sleeping on the floor and asked for an explanation, he told her that with World War I raging around them and Jews being chased from their homes all across Europe, how could he possibly allow himself the pleasure of sleeping in a comfortable bed? Similarly, when a great fire ravaged most of the Jewish section of the town of Brisk, Harav Chaim Soloveitchik (the Rav of the town, whose house was spared) insisted on sleeping in the synagogue together with the rest of his homeless congregants in order to share in their distress. These two vignettes aren’t at all surprising, considering that the Chofetz Chaim was a Kohen and Rav Chaim was a Levi, and they clearly learned well the message taught by their ancestor Levi.

Although today the Jewish people are not collectively enslaved, there are still many Jews suffering — in Eretz Yisrael, in Europe, and in our own shuls — and Levi’s message is still relevant to each of us. So many times we hear of other people’s pain, only to dismiss it as not germane to our comfortable lives. Levi teaches us that the suffering of every single Jew is indeed relevant to us, and in order to truly empathize with their plight, verbal declarations of support and understanding are insufficient. In order to truly identify with their distress, we must take concrete steps that become part of our everyday lives.

Q: The Torah records (6:23) that Aharon married Elisheva, the sister of Nachshon. Rashi writes that from the fact that the Torah mentions the seemingly extraneous detail about Elisheva’s brother, we may derive that before marrying a woman, one should first examine her brothers, because her sons will grow up to be similar to them. If a woman has two brothers, of whom one is righteous and one is wicked, is it appropriate to marry her?

Q: The word in the Torah containing the most letters is in Parashas Va’eira. What is it?

A: Harav Dovid Halevi Horowitz notes that the Mishnah in Eduyos (2:9) teaches that a son is similar to his father in appearance, strength, wealth, intelligence and lifespan. If so, how can Rashi write that a woman’s sons are similar to her brothers? He suggests that half of a son’s traits come from his father and half come from his mother’s brothers. In light of this, in the case of a woman with one righteous brother and one wicked brother, her sons will receive half of their attributes from their virtuous father, and of the half that come from her brothers, some will come from her righteous brother. Because the majority of the traits will come from positive sources, there is no problem with marrying such a woman. As proof, he notes that Chazal record (Masechta Semachos 12) that Rav Chanina ben Tradion had a wicked son, yet we find that the Tanna Rav Meir married the daughter of Rav Chanina. Even though she had an evil brother, the fact that she had other righteous brothers was sufficient for Rav Meir to marry her, especially in light of the fact that this entire concept is not a legal requirement but merely advice given by Chazal.

A: Hashem told Moshe (7:28) to warn Pharaoh that the frogs would strike in their ovens, u’v’misharosecha — and in your kneading bowls. With 10 letters, this word is the longest in the Torah.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.