"And there went a man of the house of Levi... "
The book of Exodus opens with a recounting of the seventy souls that went down to Egypt, and then suddenly informs us that these seventy souls turned into a great multitude: "And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them." (Exodus 1:7) This is surely the fulfillment of G-d's promise to Avraham, "And I will make your seed as the dust of the earth..." (Genesis 13:16) Yet immediately following are Pharaoh's chilling words to his people, "Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply." (Exodus 1:10) And this too would seem to be the fulfillment of G-d's other promise to Avraham: "'Know of a surety that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years." (Genesis 15:13) Is there a connection between the two promises, between the rapid growth of the progeny of Avraham, and their equally rapid descent into exile and servitude?
Chapter two of the book of Exodus begins by relating the story of one of the most remarkable families recorded in Scripture, the ben Levi family. We are all familiar with the story. A son is born to Amram and Yocheved, who must be hidden away from the Egyptians, who have been ordered by Pharaoh to drown the Israelite newborn boys in the Nile. When the child has grown and can no longer be concealed, his mother makes a makeshift ark for him and sets him upon the waters of the Nile. There his sister watches from afar, anxious to know the boy's fate. When Pharaoh's daughter, accompanied by her hand maidens, comes to the river to bathe, and spies the baby and orders her maidens to fetch the boy, his older sister steps forth from the brush and offers to find the boy's mother to serve as a wet nurse.
Midrash reveals even more insight into the events surrounding the birth and early life of the boy. Amram and Yocheved, agonizing over the Pharaonic death decree, decided to separate and not bring more babies into the world, thereby sparing themselves the horror of seeing their own children murdered before their eyes. The precocious Miriam, Moses' older sister by eight years, (and great prophetess in her own right), admonished her parents for their passive acquiescence before the evil decree of Pharaoh, convincing them that the only response that would ring true to the will of G-d was to go ahead and bring children into the world. She looked out for her brother's well being, and fearlessly approached the daughter of Pharoah and arranged for Moses' own mother to be his wet nurse. Little wonder, then, that years after his mother's role as wet nurse had ended, and Moses' separation from his family was absolute, he still evinced sympathy for his brother, the Hebrew slave who was being beaten by the Egyptian taskmaster. And, like his sister, he acted at once upon his sense of brotherly compassion, slaying the Egyptian.
"And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them." (ibid) The numbers are impressive, and, indeed, are a blessing, yet the numbers alone are not a guarantee of safety or prosperity or well being for the children of Israel. For the nation chosen by G-d it's not the multitudes but the family that is the guarantor of the nation's future. From the moment Torah tells us "And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi," (ibid 2:1), the redemption has begun. Family, not numbers, equals strength.
Caring for one another has been a value that G-d has striven to impart to man ever since the day that Adam, when confronted by G-d over the eating of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge, pointed to the help meet that G-d had created for him, and said, "she did it." The tragedy only deepened when Cain slew his brother Abel.
Lack of caring, lack of responsibility for one another is a sure fire recipe for a free fall into the maw of exile and oppression. Nurturing and caring for one another, as G-d had intended when He created one individual to be the ezer k'negdo - the help meet - to the other individual He created, is the fulfillment of His will.
The modern world celebrates the individual and enshrines the rights and privileges of the individual. The pursuit of ones own personal pleasure has become the benchmark for what is good, for what is desirable, and for what is moral. Torah teaches a whole other way: concern for the other is the benchmark for what is good. Based upon this fundamental principle, the 613 Torah commandments, the dos and don'ts that guide how we are to interact with our fellow man and with G-d, are the path to redemption. Welcome to the book of Exodus!
A new TEMPLE TALK, was not recorded this week, as Rabbi Chaim Richman is currently in the USA. Featured this week on Israel National Radio is last year's Temple Talk, in which Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven discuss this week's Torah reading of Shemot.