In the rabbinic world, there are things known as “rabbinic perks.”
While they might be few and far between, they come in handy every once in a while, especially when fighting a traffic ticket.
In the story of the Exodus, at the end of Parshat Vayigash, the Torah tells us that Pharaoh provided all clergy, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, with a “perk.” While he taxed everyone under his auspices, the clergy, including the entire tribe of Levi, were given a special parsonage exemption, including an eventual immunity from enslavement.
Rabbi Yonatan Eibshitz (18th century Prague) asks an obvious question. Why would Pharaoh, one of the paradigms of anti-Semitism, grant freedom to the tribe of Levi? If Pharaoh’s goal was to break the spirit of, and eventually eradicate, the Jewish people, why would he give this discharge to the Jewish clergy and specifically the tribe of Levi?
Rabbi Eibshitz explains that Pharaoh had an excellent political strategy. The Talmud tells us that Pharaoh’s magicians and fortune tellers told him many details about the future saviour of the Jewish people. Included in these details was that this saviour would come from the tribe of Levi.
Pharaoh the sociologist made a brilliant calculation. He figured that if this potential saviour did not endure the same suffering and torture as his enslaved brethren, it would be impossible for him to muster the motivation and inspiration needed to start a rebellion. Pharaoh assumed that if he shielded this “saviour” from being enslaved, the potential rebellion had no chance for success.
Without “feeling the pain” and plight of the people, without ever having experienced the agony, suffering, and humiliation that the Jewish people were subjected to, this potential dissident would never rise to power. So Pharaoh excused the tribe of Levi from being enslaved in order to squelch the drive of this “saviour.”
Pharaoh, however, was wrong. He failed to understand the makeup and sensitivity of a Jewish person. What Moshe, the greatest leader in our history, teaches us is that a Jewish person can reside in an affluent community on the other side of the world, and despite this still find the compassion and sensitivity for his “acheynu kol Beit Yisrael” on the other side of the globe. In spite of the opulence of Moshe’s upbringing – the fact Moshe grew up in the luxury of the king’s palace and did not endure the pains of slavery like his brothers – nonetheless he still heard their cries, and he still felt their pain. “Vayigdal Moshe vayetze el-echav vayar besivlotam” – the verse tells us that Moshe grew up (matured), then went out to his brothers and saw their suffering.
It’s a phenomenon that can’t be rationally explained, but the Jew always feels the plight of the impoverished. This is the concept of “kol Yisrael areyvin zeh l’zeh.” Each Jew is responsible for each other. If there is an issue that is affecting the Jewish people, or non-Jews alike, nothing in the world can impede our hearts from going out to them, and our hands from reaching out to them.
As we celebrate the holiday of Passover and the Festival of Freedom, we naturally remember those who are still fighting for their own exodus, whether it be on a national or personal level. When a cry goes out – whether in our neighbourhood, our homeland or anywhere else in the world – our ears are ingrained to hear it and respond eagerly.
With so much indigence and need out there, there is much work to be done. But whenever and wherever there is a shout for help, our people will stand up and shout back, “Hineini!” – “Here I am!”
Rabbi Ira Ebbin is spiritual leader of Montreal’s Beth Zion Congregation.