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Sunday, December 26, 2010

#1 Va'eira. The Mixed Blessings of Shevet Levi

Rashi 5:4 brings (Medrash Rabba Shemos 5:20 and Tanchuma Va'eira 6) that the tribe of Levi was not enslaved in Mitzrayim.  The Ramban (5:5) says that Pharaoh left Shevet Levi alone because, as Machiavelli and Marx pointed out, an undisturbed clergy class is a tool that maintains social order, which, for Pharaoh, enabled the efficient exploitation of the Ivrim.  Other mefarshim give many other reasons for Levi's exemption.

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.


Daniel said...

I enjoyed the question.

In my opinion, the Gur Aryeh is fully aware of your thinking. His answers are not convincing to you b/c they are referencing concepts of a deeper nature and that's why he ends off by insisting דבר זה מופלא ואמת.

You will note the שם/בנים connection in יבום among many others.

b said...

For those of you that don't have access to the Gur Aryeh, this is what he says:

Ahl Kein means there is a stronger and more compelling connection between the person and the name. That stronger connection results in bracha.

Daniel is pointing out that this connection is based on the idea that "Shem" is associated with procreation. We see this concept in the parsha of Yibum, where children are called the shem of the deceased, and we see it in the naming of the animals in Bereishis, and we also see it in the haftara of Taaneisim, where it says "venasati lahem yad veshem."

OK, good point. But it would be nice if the Maharal would have mentioned the first appearance of Ahl Kein. Also, it's hard to read it into Rashi, who says it's a din in Ahl Kein, not in the connection to the naming per se.

Daniel said...

Don't know if I agree that's it's difficult to read in Rashi. Rashi's comment is only in reference to the על כן by the NAMING of the שבטים and in that context he says "מרובה באוכלוסין". Clearly it does not fit into the other על כן of the Torah.

Putting that aside, while the Maharal does separate 3 answers I see them all as being related. You've only mentioned the 3rd. The first explains intrinsically the logic. Note: כן used in connoting manifestation of finiteness/limitation as in ויהי כן.

Daniel said...

fyi, anyone who wants can download the Gur Aryeh here:

Chatzkel said...

Your vort changed from the way it was when you first put it up. It's much better now.

What brocho is asher tzag?

b said...

Correct. I change my posts constantly, sometimes in response to comments, sometimes when I read them myself.

Asher Tzag is a bracha the chasan makes the first night of the wedding. Some say it, some don't.

b said...

Asher Tzag can be found in the Tur, EH 63. The Aruch Hashulchan says the minhag is not to say it, so anyone that does better do it without sheim umalchus.

Anonymous said...

I seem to recall a medrash that says Bnei Yisrael became slaves slowly. They were enticed by Pharoah into doing extra work for extra pay when their flocks did not need tending. Shevet Levi used the time to learn Torah instead.

LkwdGuy said...

The Aruch Hashulchan says the minhag is not to say it, so anyone that does better do it without sheim umalchus.

Or maybe "say" the shem u'malchus b'hirhur.

(heard from my rav yesterday in relation to baruch she'patrani)

b said...

Anonymous of December 31- interesting pshat. It didn't appeal to me at first, but maybe I can hear it- since the Rambam says that Shevet Levi was always dedicated to harbatzas Torah, it stands to reason that they would prefer to spend their time in avodas hashem than in, as you say, "earning extra money."

LkwdGuy, what about saying רחמנא מלכא מרא דעלמא, as the Aruch Hashulchan says in קסז:כ and רב:ג.

I had a excellent experience yesterday. I was talking to my son, who learns in the Dirshu Chabura in Lakewood, and he told me how much he enjoys the Aruch Hashulchan, because he explains how the poskim learn the Gemara and the svaros to favor one over the other. I said that learning the Aruch Hashulchan is like listening to a symphony. He asked if I had every read his introduction, and I said no, and he said that in the introduction, Rav Epstein says that he chose his style over simple halacha pesuka, like the Mechaber and the Chayei Adam, because Torah is a Shira, and the beauty of a shira is the different sounds being made at the same time.

LkwdGuy said...

The beauty of doing it my way is that no one knows what i do b'hirhur. I can say "baruch", pause for a breath (it can even sound like I'm getting choked up) while 'saying' b'hirhur "ato Hashem Elokainu melech ha'olam", and then continue with "she'potrani etc.

Your option will get me stoned.

b said...

To be honest, I'm pretty sure that neither Reb Moshe nor Rav Rudderman liked the בריך רחמנא מלכא מרא דעלמא option, one because poretz geder on Chazal's nusach, the other because it's no less sheim levatala when it's used to refer to Hashem. Hirhur, on the other hand, is kedibur in tefilla, at least according to the Rambam.