True Empathy by Dani Yaros


After relating the story of Hashem commanding Moshe to ask Paroh to let the Jews leave Mitzrayim, the Torah takes a brief break from the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim and relates the descendants of Reuven, Shimon, and Levi.  There are a number of differences between the way that Reuven’s and Shimon’s respective descendants are articulated as opposed to those of Levi’s.  One difference between the lists is that by Reuven and Shimon, the Torah immediately begins to list their descendants, giving no introduction, while in relating the children of Levi, the Torah prefaces the list with, “These are the names of the sons of Levi according to their generations” (Shemot 6:16).  Why the distinction?

The Shelah answers this question by pointing out that Sheivet Levi was not enslaved in Mitzrayim.  The Gemara (Taanit 11a) states that while Klal Yisrael is in a state of suffering, it is forbidden for any individual to partake in any unnecessary and extravagant enjoyment.  The Shelah explains that despite the freedom that the Leviim retained, they wished to empathize with the suffering of their brethren.  Levi therefore gave his children, Gershon, Kehat, and Merari, names that implied slavery.  The Shelah explains that Gershon was so named because Klal Yisrael “lived in a land that was not theirs” (see Shemot 2:22); Kehat was named because, literally, “the teeth of Klal Yisrael were dulled (Nikhu, from the root Kuf Hei Hei) from the hardships of Galut;” and Merari was so named because the Mitzrim “embittered (VaYmareru) the lives of the Jews” (1:14).  In order to emphasize this point, the Torah specifically says, “These are the names of the sons of Levi;” as Klal Yisrael at large was suffering, the Leviim identified with them through the naming of their children.

An obvious problem exists with this explanation of the Shelah.  Levi named his children when he was still in Eretz Yisrael, long before going down to Mitzrayim.  I have been offered two possible answers for this problem with the Shelah’s answer.  Rabbi Chaim Jachter suggested that perhaps Levi anticipated the slavery, based on the Brit Bein HaBetarim, and named his children accordingly.  Rav Moshe Mordechai Bloom suggests an alternative answer.  There is a well known idea that parents have Ruach HaKodesh (divine inspiration) when naming their children, so perhaps Levi unknowingly gave his children names that would be apropos of their future enslavement.  (See Berachot 7b, where such a concept is articulated.)

We live in a time when, perhaps more so than ever before in Jewish history, animosity exists between Jews, be it between Chassidim and Misnagdim, Zionists and anti-Zionists, or any other groups.  We often live our lives in a box, disregarding the hardships and views of others.  We must learn from the acts of Levi and the naming of his future children to care for and accept every Jew.

-Based on a Devar Torah in the Sefer Torah LaDaat

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