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LEVI'S GENES

by Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

When Moses and Aaron first came to Pharaoh audaciously demanding, in the name of Hashem, "Send out My people, that they may celebrate in My honor in the desert" (Exodus 5:1), Pharaoh responded dismissively: "Moses and Aaron, why do you disturb the people from their work? Get back to your own responsibilities" (ibid. 5:4).

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When Moses and Aaron first came to Pharaoh audaciously demanding, in the name of Hashem, "Send out My people, that they may celebrate in My honor in the desert" (Exodus 5:1), Pharaoh responded dismissively: "Moses and Aaron, why do you disturb the people from their work? Get back to your own responsibilities" (ibid. 5:4).

Pharaoh, in short, was attempting to challenge Hashem's mastery of the world, and it would require ten plagues plus the splitting of the Red Sea to cut his oversized ego down to size. Incidentally, Pharaoh had ratified a policy that had been in force for over 200 years: the tribe of Levi, to which Moses and Aaron belonged, were exempt from the slavery imposed on the rest of the Jewish people (hence, "Get back to your own responsibilities").

How had this happened? Originally, our sages tell us, the Jews were drafted into Pharaoh's building projects not by force, but by appeals to their patriotism ("Pharaoh wants you!"), bolstered by the king's own pretense of being one of the workers; only later did the work gradually, and insidiously, change into forced slave labor. Going back yet a step further, we find that the Jewish people, following the deaths of the 12 sons of Jacob, began to assimilate among the Egyptians (although they did keep their Jewish names, language, dress, and loyalty to each other). In particular, our sages tell us that they abandoned the practice of brit milah (circumcision), the distinguishing mark that differentiates the Jew from the non-Jew, and they replaced the study of Torah with the Egyptian arts and sciences. By imitating them, the Jews hoped they would gain favor with the Egyptians; however, the Egyptians began to fear and subsequently hate the Jewish people, culminating in their forcing them into brutal slavery.

However, the tribe of Levi did not become involved in any of this. They had been entrusted by Jacob with the preservation of the Torah, and they zealously guarded and studied it; they also conscientiously kept the mitzvah of brit milah despite the jeers (and, probably, "scientific pronouncements" decrying circumcision) of the Egyptians. When Pharaoh came out with his hod of bricks and mortar, calling on all "patriotic Egyptian citizens" to join him in working on projects for national development, the tribe of Levi again remained aloof, realizing they had a higher patriotic mission to build houses of Torah rather than Pharaonic granaries.

The result was that even the most despotic Pharaohs realized they would get nowhere with the Levites, who obeyed only a higher Power; and they, therefore, left them alone for the entire 210 years of the Jewish stay in Egypt.

It is noteworthy, that unlike circumcision, Torah study was not, during this period, a mitzvah obligatory on the Jewish people. The Levites, by continuing to study Torah, were essentially just preserving an ancient custom; and the fact that the rest of the Jewish people abandoned the study of Torah meant nothing more than their discarding a custom of "der alter heim the old home," an American Yiddishism for the shtetls of Europe. Yet the abandonment of that "custom" brought in its train other breaches in their Jewish identity, followed in turn by Egyptian anti-Semitism and all of its consequences.

The Egyptian exile is the prototype of all the later exiles of our people, including the current one which will end with the coming of Mashiach (Messiah). We, too, have various "Pharaohs" who try to gain mastery over us, beginning from the internal "Pharaoh" the evil inclination all the way to the enemies of our people who appear in national form, such as the ones who threaten the security of Israel and its close to five million Jewish residents.

What is the best way to deal with them? Some people take an approach of appeasement: Give "Pharaoh" an inch, they say, make some compromises in your Judaism, and preserve the rest. However, the example of the historical Egyptian Pharaoh shows that this is a mistake; giving in an inch is only an invitation to Pharaoh to grab a mile. Pity the poor Jew who went on the first day to assist in the building project, whether out of patriotism, or curiosity and then found that he had committed himself and his descendants to 86 years of backbreaking labor. Also, as with the Jewish people in Egypt, any compromise in our Jewish identity is also an opening for trouble from outside.

A far better approach is to take the example of the tribe of Levi: stand firm for what we believe in, make no compromises (not even a day's work for Pharaoh). Before long, even "Pharaoh" himself will have no choice but to admit that he cannot make a dent in our physical or spiritual security, and that he had best leave us "to our tasks" in particular, the task of bolstering our Jewish knowledge and identity, and heralding the era of Mashiach and the end of all "Pharaohs"!

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This essay is based on a public address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory.

Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer writes from Atlanta

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