In the census of Bamidbar 3:14, the Ramban points out that the tribe of Levi was minuscule: the number of Leviim in the above-twenty group was not even half of the smallest of the other tribes. The Ramban points out that this anomaly cannot be attributed to the dangers of carrying the Aron, because at the time of that census they had not yet carried the Aron. So, the Ramban says that this supports the above-cited Medrash. As the passuk in Shemos 1:12 says, וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ "as they oppressed them, so did they multiply and so did they spread." This means that when Pharaoh enacted his genocidal measures, Hashem said "We shall see whose words will be fulfilled," and engendered in the people a supernatural fecundity. The tribe of Levi, which was not subject to the same oppression, was never blessed with this miraculous growth. Levi only grew at a natural rate, and so they remained the least of the tribes.
The Ramban also suggests that perhaps the size of Shevet Levi was a result of Yaakov's anger for Levi's behavior in the episode of Dinah. Although Shimon was equally involved, and Shimon was a large tribe at this point, Shimon was later diminished by a plague that struck them prior to entering the land of Israel, and ultimately was of a size similar to that of Levi. The final tally was the same for both tribes, but Shimon's fate was worse- to have grown quickly and to be diminished quickly through plague. Levi was favored, in a sense, in that they simply remained few from beginning to end.
This all sheds light upon an issue that arose in Vayeitzei, Breishis 29:35. Leah had a third child, and וַתֹּאמֶר עַתָּה הַפַּעַם יִלָּוֶה אִישִׁי אֵלַי כִּי יָלַדְתִּי לוֹ שְׁלֹשָׁה בָנִים עַל כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמוֹ לֵוִי: Rashi says that whenever the words עַל כֵּן Ahl Kein are used, that child's family became unusually numerous כל מי שנאמר בו על כן מרובה באוכלוסין (see notes at end of post). If so, wonders Rashi, why does the phrase occur in reference to Levi, the most meager of the tribes? Rashi answers, from the Medrash Rabba 71:4, that the responsibility of carrying the Aron involved an extremely high-risk: the slightest distraction of inappropriate thought would result in immediate punishment (similar to the Kohen Gadol in the Kodesh Kadashim on Yom Kippur), and this resulted in the thinning out of the tribe of Levi. כל מי שנאמר בו על כן מרובה באוכלוסין חוץ מלוי, שהארון היה מכלה בהם Thus, although they were given the bracha of ahl kein, it was counter-balanced by the danger of the Aron.
Everybody asks on the Rashi/Medrash that you can't blame their low number on the Aron alone, since they were already disproportionately few at the time they left Mitzrayim, long before they began carrying the Aron. Obviously, their low number is connected to the Ramban's other pshat, that not having been enslaved, they did not share the concomitant bracha. Why, then, does the Medrash attribute the difference to the Aron? You have to say that the Medrash means that even after they left Mitzrayim, and the bracha on the other shevatim that wasn't shared by Levi ended, their rate of growth remained lower than the others because of the Aron.
This works if you say that the initial disparity was based on the absence of the כַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה. Even after they all left Mitzrayim and that factor ended, the Aron explains their continued low rate of growth. But if, as the Ramban says in his second pshat, it was based on Yaakov's anger, I would think that Yaakov's anger would remain a factor even after they left Mitzrayim. Why, then, does the Medrash say it was because of the Aron?
I think we can use the same approach according to the Ramban's second pshat as well. The deleterious effect of Yaakov's anger should have ended when they thoroughly overcame the character flaw that led to what they did in Shechem, as demonstrated by their elevation to eternal service of Hashem in the Mikdash and in teaching Torah. Ironically, this transcendence, this teshuva shleima, that should have finally invoked the bracha of כל מי שנאמר בו על כן מרובה באוכלוסין, earned them the job of carrying the Aron. And ultimately, it was the Aron that limited their number. (Although Levi's destiny was already evident during Yaakov's lifetime, as the Rambam indicates at the end of the first perek of Hilchos Avodas Kochavim, this was not the same as the irrevocable change that occurred when they were forever designated as eternal Klei Kodesh.)
How ironic! When they finally redeemed themselves, when they finally earned an end to the negative effect of Yaakov's anger, they were rewarded with the job of carrying the Aron, which served to keep them in the same position as before.
This often occurs often in Tanach, and probably in life as well. (Consider, for example, Rashi that says that the 'sin' of Meriva was more in the way of an excuse to keep Moshe from entering Eretz Yisrael.) The ultimate state is always attained, but the means, the method, the reason, is plastic. Pardon the odd word, but it precisely describes this thought: Life is teleological; or as de Chardin put it, orthogenic. A purpose, a tachlis, draws events towards it like a magnet. Things might happen be'tufim uv'mcholos, and they might happen b'shalshe'la'os shel barzel (Shabbos 89b). But they're going to happen no matter what. A long time ago, someone expressed this idea like this:
Imagine not being able to distinguish the real cause, from that without which the cause would not be able to act, as a cause. It is what the majority appear to do, like people groping in the dark; they call it a cause, thus giving it a name that does not belong to it.Hashem's will was that Levi would be a small Shevet. At first, this required end arose from either their freedom from avdus or Yaakov's anger. When those reasons no longer pertained, another reason arose that had the same effect- the danger of carrying the Aron Kodesh.
So, is this idea of any practical use? Does it make life easier or harder or more comprehensible? Can we ever know what we can change and what we can't, what is written in pencil and what in stone? I don't know, probably none of the three, and most likely not. But it's a good thought to have available. You might need it someday. I remember that once I met my Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Rudderman ztz'l, on the train going from Baltimore to New York. He asked me why I was going, I told him to go out with a girl, and he said that the Ribono shel Olam wanted me in New York, and that I can't know for sure why. What I thought of as the reason was not necessarily the true reason. Who knows? Maybe the reason was so I could have that conversation with Rav Rudderman.
- First: this siman bracha in the words עַל כֵּן is the reason we find them in many places, such as a bris and kiddush on Shabbos. On an auspicious occasion, we like to use these special words. I'm just surprised that we don't find them anywhere in the public Sheva Brachos or the nusach of nisuin. It is in the bracha of אשר צג, though.
- Second: What is it about the the words Ahl Kein that invokes or indicates מרובה באוכלוסין, great numbers? The Mefarshim in Parshas Vayeitzei (the Gur Aryeh and others) say many pshatim, none of which are I find convincing. When we discussed this at our kiddush, Reb Yitzchak Resnik said the answer is simple: the first time the phrase occurs is (Bereishis 2:24) in connection with the mitzva of Pirya Verivya. Therefore, or we could say Ahl Kein, the phrase implies a bracha of pirya verivya. His answer is definitely correct, but doesn't eliminate the question entirely, because we still need to find why these particular words were chosen to convey this bracha.
- Third: All the explanations for Levi's exemption from servitude are informed speculation: we have no clear mesora as to the real reason. But whatever the reason was, it couldn't have been good enough to prevent the other Shevatim from resenting Shevet Levi. True, Levi must have somehow fulfilled the nevu'ah of avdus and inui that was foretold at the Bris Bein Habesarim, but whatever avdus and inui they had was very different than the avdus and inui of the rest of the Bnei Yisrael. As my father zatzal said, everyone is mekayeim "בְּזֵעַת אַפֶּיךָ תֹּאכַל לֶחֶם", by the sweat of your brow you will eat bread, but some fulfill it by shoveling gravel in the hot sun, and some fulfill it when the air conditioner in their office breaks. Imagine being brutally worked, and seeing your cousins sitting and learning and counseling all day. There's enough Ayin Hara and resentment from the people who drive a jalopy and watch their neighbor cruise down the street in a Land Rover. It couldn't have generated a lot of love among the two classes. I would suggest that this ayin hara contributed to Levi's relatively small numbers.
- Fourth: To explain how Al Kein implies 'numerous,' (see Gur Aryeh, Levush Ha'orah, and Sifsei Chacahmim in Vayeitzei 29:34) Reb Yitzchak Resnik pointed out that these words first appear when Hashem told Adam and Chava "al kein yaazov ish....vedavak b'ishto." This certainly highlights Rashi's point, although it does not explain why these words have this connotation.