Our sages taught that when Jews were enslaved in Egypt, the tribe of Levi, remained free.I asked my children to tell me why the tribe of Levi was given a pass from bondage and they supplied the very answers offered by our greatest luminaries. My older daughter explained that the Levitic tribe continued to practice and teach the traditions that they had learned from their Patriarch Jacob. And since Pharaoh understood that every nation needs mentors, he allowed the Levites, to study and teach unimpeded.
My younger daughter explained that because the tribe of Levi studied Torah, they were exempt from slavery. She explained that when we study Torah, G-d provides extra protection. Our sages taught, “Rabbi Nechunia the son of Hakanah would say: One who accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah is exempted from the yoke of government duties and the yoke of worldly cares; but one who casts off the yoke of Torah is saddled with the yoke of government duties and the yoke of worldly cares.”
This was not just a supernatural miracle performed by G-d, it was also an act of defiance by the Levites. Knowing that they were destined to carry the Holy Ark across the desert, they refused to work for Pharaoh. When they were invited to the work place, they replied that shoulders destined to carry the Ark for G-d, should not carry the workload for Pharaoh.
On the face of it, this was unmitigated chutzpah. The Egyptians invited the Jews to join the work force and contribute to the economy that supported them, yet the Levites refused, saying effectively, ‘we are better than that’. Suppose a Jew today would appear on the morning news and declare that Jews are the chosen people and therefore should not need to work, and should instead be supported by their host nations. Wouldn’t that be perceived as sheer chutzpah?
The Levites did not protest the idea of contributing to the economy. They stood up to the Egyptians’ insinuation that there was nothing distinctive about those destined to carry the Holy Ark. Get off your high horse, the Egyptians prompted, stop acting like G-d’s gift to the world and come join us. Be a part of us. Be just like us. Sing with us, celebrate with us, live with us, dine with us and integrate with us. Of course, this invitation would ring hollow when shortly thereafter the Egyptians would enslave the Jews, yet the original invitation said, come and join us.
The Levites resisted without hesitation. They stood up with pride and proclaimed, we are different from you. We are not like you. We were selected for holy work. We can’t be Egyptian. We are Jewish.
We live as a minority among a non-Jewish majority and often feel the pressure of being different. No one likes to stand out and we are often tempted to join the larger group. When our neighbors wonder why we don’t join them at the beach or ski slopes on Saturday morning, we feel uncomfortable about explaining Shabbat. Should a friend drop in for a casual visit during Passover Seder, we feel awkward about explaining the Matzah and Maror. When a colleague complains about those terrible Israelis who occupy and oppress their Palestinian neighbors, we cringe in silence.
Yet, we have no reason to feel ashamed. On the contrary, we are the People of the Book and a Light unto the Nations. G-d placed us on earth to teach our fellow Jews about Judaism and the nations about the seven Noahide laws. We are humanity’s teachers. When a scenario arises that prompts us to stand out, it is our cue to respond with pride and step up to the occasion. This is not the time to cringe. It is a teaching moment and we are the teachers.
Indeed, when a friend asks why we don’t open our shop on Shabbat, we teach them that sustenance comes from G-d and that when we operate our business according to G-d’s wishes, we are confident that He will provide for our needs. When our friend replies that he earns a lot of money by working on Shabbat, we point out that among Jews there is a tradition that money earned on Shabbat is not for a blessing. We can earn less and have fewer expenses or earn more and incur many unforeseen and unpleasant expenses. We prefer the former.
If neighbors drop in during Passover Seder, it is our chance to teach them about the true meaning of liberty. Liberty, as Abe Lincoln put it, is not the freedom to do as we please, but the freedom to do as we must. Moses did not say, let my people go, so they can be free. He said, let my people Go, so they can worship G-d. When we appear at work with a Kippah on our head, we need not cringe and feel self conscience. We need to walk with Jewish pride and be ready to explain what a Kipah means.
Dr. Dovid Lazerson is an educator who uses music and educational techniques to heal rifts and bring people together. He began his career as a teacher in the Buffalo public school system. Worried about taking off too many days for Jewish holidays during his first month of work, he wrote an explanatory essay about the High Holidays. He handed the essay to the principal’s secretary, who scanned it and nodded her head disapprovingly. She looked up and said, if you have a religious holiday, just say its your holiday and don’t come to school. You have no reason to be ashamed.
How does one develop this mindset of pride and courage?
The first instruction in the Code of Jewish Law is, “Shiviti Hashem L’negdi Tamid – I place G-d before me at all times.” The second instruction is, “Al Yevosh Mipnei Hamaligin – don’t be ashamed of the mockers.” If we want to find the courage and Jewish pride to stand up to mockery, we must have a firm grounding in our Jewish teachings. The more time we spend thinking about G-d and studying His Torah, the more easily we will identify with Torah and adopt our Jewish persona.
When we are immersed in Torah and grounded in Torah, the world looks different. It doesn’t look like a place that resists G-d, it looks like a place created by G-d; waiting for us to teach it about G-d. We feel like we belong. We have a mission. We are helping people. Not standing up to them.
Yet, sometimes we are affected by our lonely status as a tiny minority and feel self-conscious about our unusual beliefs. It helps to remember that the truth remains true even when the majority doesn’t believe in it. They tell a story about a friend of Niles Bhor, who noticed that Bhor had hung a horseshoe over his door for luck. “Surely, Niles you don’t believe in this,” he said. “Of course not”, replied Bohr, “but the thing is that it works whether you believe in it or not.