Ari Sacher

‘Undercover’ Parashat Shemot 5783

The Portion of Shemot[1] – literally “Names” – begins, unsurprisingly, with a list of names [Shemot 1:1]: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob”. The Torah then counts the names of each of Jacob’s children. The story segues to a dramatic change in the Egyptian treatment of Jacob’s family, subjecting them to discrimination, subjugation, and then, finally, genocide.

If the first chapter of the Book of Shemot is all about names, the second chapter is all about anonymity. Ask any child to retell the story of Moshe’s birth and he will tell you something like this: “Amram and Yocheved have their third child, a younger brother to Aaron and Miriam. To prevent the Egyptians from murdering her baby, Yocheved places him in a basket on the Nile, where he is discovered by the Princess Bitya[2]. Miriam suggests to Bitya that she hire Yocheved as a wet-nurse. Bitya agrees and everybody lives happily ever after.” The Torah tells the story much more cryptically [Shemot 2:1-10]: “A man of the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi… [When] she could no longer hide him, she took a reed basket… placed the child into it, and put [it] into the marsh at the Nile’s edge. His sister stood from afar, to know what would be done to him. Pharaoh’s daughter went down to bathe… and she saw the basket in the midst of the marsh… His sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and call for you a wet nurse from the Hebrew women…’ Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Go!’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Take this child and nurse him…’ So the woman took the child and nursed him. The child grew up, and she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became like her son. She named him Moshe”. For a portion called “Names”, it seems counterintuitive that all of the names here have gone missing. Pronouns abound. There is no Amram, no Yocheved, no Miriam, and no Bitya. The only person explicitly mentioned by name is Moshe. Why does everyone go undercover?

This question is asked by Rabbi Asher Wasserteil[3] in his “Birkat Asher”. He first quotes Rabbi Jacob Filber, who suggests that as the episode is discussing the birth of Moshe, the redeemer of Israel, one might suppose that this person must come from a “good family”. By leaving out the name of everyone but Moshe, the Torah is informing us that Moshe was chosen on his own merit. Rabbi Wasserteil does not accept Rabbi Filber’s suggestion because the Torah does mention that Moshe came from the Tribe of Levi, ostensibly showing off his lineage. Rabbi Wasserteil then quotes Rabbi Hezki Fuchs, who suggests that Moshe had to come from the Tribe of Levi, who, according to our Sages in the Midrash, were not subjugated by the Egyptians[4]. Only a free person could lead the rest of his people to freedom.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch[5] offers another way ahead, introducing the concept of the “Spirit of the Tribe of Levi”. In the previous Portion of Vayechi, Jacob chastises his son, Levi, over his killing the inhabitants of Shechem, who had kidnapped and raped Levi’s sister, Dinah. Jacob punishes Levi by dispersing his tribe throughout Israel. According to Rabbi Hirsch, the “Spirit of the Tribe of Levi” was required to lead the Jews out of Egypt. The time had come for the Tribe of Levi to gather once again[6]. All other names were inconsequential.

Rabbi YY Rubinstein offers insight into the essence of the “Spirit of the Tribe of Levi”. Rabbi YY asks why G-d chose specifically the Priests (Kohanim), who hailed from the Tribe of Levi, to serve in the Holy Temple (Beit HaMikdash). Here is a tribe whose ancestor not only killed the entire village of Shechem in cold blood, but, according to our Sages in the Midrash, was responsible for throwing his brother, Joseph, in the pit. Should this person be officiating in the Holy of Holies? Rabbi YY answers that what differentiates an extraordinary teacher from an ordinary teacher is a burning passion for what he teaches. A person who lacks this passion cannot ignite another person’s imagination. Levi had an abundance of passion. It is this passion that drives him to kill the people of Shechem. It is the same passion that drives the Tribe of Levi to join forces with Moshe after the rest of the Jewish People sin with the Golden Calf (Egel) and Moshe issues a call to arms [Shemot 32:26]: “Whoever is for G-d, come with me”. And it is the same passion that drives the Tribe of Levi, one thousand years later, in the guise of Hasmonean Priests, to lead a revolt against the Greeks using the very same call to arms. The “Spirit of the Tribe of Levi” was essential to ignite a nation that had become relegated to generations of Egyptian servitude to stand up and rebel against their masters.

If we can agree that that the “Spirit of the Tribe of Levi” is a necessary ingredient to jump-start the process of redemption, does this mean that the people who will lead us to our third and final redemption must also hail from the Tribe of Levi? Not necessarily. The redemption from Egypt begins with two people [Shemot 2:1]: “A man of the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi”. Why does the Torah not simply state “A man of the house of Levi married the daughter of Levi”? What does the verb “went” add? The Ibn Ezra[7] suggests that Amram and Yocheved lived in two different geographical locations, such that Amram had to “go” to her location in order to marry her. Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto[8] proposes a very different explanation. He posits that the Torah uses the word “went” to describe a person who chooses to take a stance and to act with conviction. Rabbi Luzzatto points us to a comment made by our Sages in the Midrash which asserts that Amram had divorced Yocheved after Pharaoh’s decree to kill all male Jewish babies. After Amram is rebuked by his daughter, Miriam, for being worse than Pharaoh – Pharaoh wanted to kill only the males while, by divorcing his wife, Amram is preventing any kind of Jewish continuity – he remarries Yocheved. He decides to stand up and to do what he knows is right, come what may. Without Amram’s conviction, the Jews would have never left Egypt.

A comment I heard from Rabbi Natan Kizman[9] can help knit things together. Rabbi Kizman notes that the stragglers who had gone down to Egypt as [Shemot 1:1] “Children of Jacob (Bnei Yisrael)” had evolved into [Shemot 1:9] the “Nation of Israel”. Their impending redemption from Egypt had forged them from a group of individuals into one nation. In the framework of redemption, explains Rabbi Kizman, their national identities were more important than their personal identities and so their names became irrelevant. Nowadays, the Jewish People are no longer divided into twelve tribes. Years of exile have taken their toll and most Jews alive today hail from one of three tribes: Judah, Benjamin, or Levi[10]. Nevertheless while the tribal distinction has been nearly completely erased, the individual persona of each of Jacob’s sons survives on a national level. We all contain bits and pieces of the personalities of our forefathers. Every Jew contains within his soul the “Spirit of the Tribe of Levi”. Each one of us has within our power to bring the redemption closer by releasing our “inner Levi”. We are all capable of acting with passion, of overcoming our innate tendency to let others do the heavy lifting. I am simply blown away by what the first Israelis managed to do. They came to a desert land that was nearly uninhabitable. They were surrounded by Arabs hell-bent on their destruction. And yet, by doing what needed to be done, they not only survived, they thrived. I owe them a debt I can never in a million years repay. Whoever is for G-d, come with me!

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, Avraham Menashe ben Chana Bracha, Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah and Rina bat Hassida.

[1] For some reason, Sefer Shemot, literally the “Book of Names” is referred to as the “Book of Exodus”.

[2] “Bitya” is often mispronounced as “Batya”.

[3] Rabbi Wasserteil lived in Israel in the previous century.

[4] See Rashi’s commentary to Shemot [5:4].

[5] Rabbi Hirsch lived in Frankfurt am Mein in the nineteenth century.

[6] Rabbi Wasserteil mentions Rabbi Hirsch’s explanation but in a rather demeaning fashion.

[7] Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra lived in Spain in the twelfth century.

[8] Rabbi Luzzatto, known as “Shadal”, lived in Italy in the eighteenth century. Note that Rabbi Hirsch proposes a similar explanation, but Shadal says it more clearly.

[9] Rabbi Kizman recently moved to Moreshet.

[10] Some suggest that Ethiopian Jews come from the Tribe of Dan.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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