“Participating in the Communal Pain”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, marks the commencement of the redemption of the People of Israel from their bitter enslavement of Egypt. The Torah introduces the family of Moses and Aaron, and the first seven plagues are visited upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians.

Exodus 6:14-28 identifies Moses and Aaron as G-d’s representatives who will lead the Israelites out of the slavery of Egypt. In order to trace the descent of Aaron and Moses, the Torah records the genealogy of Jacob’s eldest children until it reaches the tribe of Levi, from which Moses and Aaron are descended.

The Torah, in Exodus 6:14, begins by listing the families of the tribe of Reuben, and states, אֵלֶּה רָאשֵׁי בֵית אֲבֹתָם, בְּנֵי רְאוּבֵן , These are the heads of their father’s house, the sons of Reuben, and then lists the names of Reuben’s children: Hanoch, Pallu, Hezron and Carmi. In Exodus 6:15, the Torah records the sons of Simeon: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin and Zohar, and Shaul, the son of a Canaanite woman (Vayigash 5767-2006).

When listing the names of the children of Levi, the Torah, Exodus 6:16 states, וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי לֵוִי לְתֹלְדֹתָם, גֵּרְשׁוֹן וּקְהָת וּמְרָרִי , These are the names of the sons of Levi, according to the order of their birth, Gershon, Kehath and Merari.

Regarding the tribes of Reuben and Simeon, the Torah merely says, “The sons of,” without mentioning the word, שֵׁמוֹת –“Shay’moht,” the names. However, when identifying the family of Levi the Torah specifically says, “These are the names (Shay’moht) of the sons of Levi.”

The Sh’la HaKodesh explains that the tribe of Levi was different from the other tribes of Israel, in that its members were not included in the decree of enslavement. But, because the Levites felt the pain of their brothers, they sought ways of sharing with their brothers’ plight and empathizing with them. Therefore, they gave their children names that reflected the bitter exile: Gershon, for they were strangers in the land [Egypt] which was not theirs; Kehath, because the Israelites’ teeth were blunted as a result of their slavery; and Merari, to be reminded that the Jews’ lives were “embittered” by the Egyptians.

The Sh’la declares that this important textual nuance teaches that no Jew should ever be left to suffer alone, and that it is essential that every Jew feel the pain of their fellow Jews, even though they themselves may not be suffering. That is why the Al-mighty G-d told Moses (Exodus 3:14) that His name is, אֶהְיֶ־ה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶ־ה , “I will be what I will be”–meaning that I [G-d] will be with them [Israel] during this exile [Egypt] and I will be with them in future exiles.

The Talmud, in Taanit 11a, emphasizes that it is crucial for every individual Jew to participate in the pain of the community. Our rabbis taught, when Israel is in trouble and one individual separates himself from the communal pain, two ministering angels who accompany that person, place their hands upon his head and say, “May this person who abandoned the community, not behold the consolation of the community.” Similarly, when the community is in trouble, one should not say, “I will go home, eat and drink, and all will be well with me!”

Our rabbis say that Moses’ actions during Israel’s battle with Amalek recorded in Exodus 17:12, show that even those who are perfectly righteous must feel the pain of the community. The Torah notes that as the battle with Amalek wore on, Moses’ hands grew heavy. In order to assist the weary leader, Aaron and Hur took a stone and placed it under Moses, for him to sit on. They thus supported Moses’ hands, enabling Moses’ hands to remain in faithful prayer until sunset, when Israel was victorious.

Why was Moses standing during the battle? Couldn’t someone have found a chair for him to rest upon during the battle? Rather Moses said, “If the people in battle are in pain, I will also be in pain. After all, those who experience the pain of the community will merit to see the redemption and consolation of the community.” (Talmud, Taanit 11a)

We see, that even though Moses grew up in the comfort of Pharaoh’s palace, he strongly identified with the Jewish people.  The Torah confirms, that from the early years of Moses as a public figure, Exodus 2:11, וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם , that he went out to his brethren and observed their burdens. But he did not simply “observe,” he actually risked his own life to save the life of a Jew who was being beaten by an Egyptian.

Furthermore, from the names that Moses gives his children, in Exodus 18:3-4, we see his abundant empathy for his people. He calls his eldest son “Gershom,” כִּי אָמַר, גֵּר הָיִיתִי בְּאֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה , for he says, “I was a stranger in a strange land.” He named his second son “Eliezer,” כִּי אֱ־לֹקֵי אָבִי בְּעֶזְרִי, וַיַּצִּלֵנִי מֵחֶרֶב פַּרְעֹה , For the G-d of my father came to my aid and He saved me from the sword of Pharaoh.

Moses really should have named his first child “Eliezer,” since his rescue from the sword of Pharaoh took place before Moses was exiled to Midian. Yet, even though Moses grew up in the comfort of Pharaoh’s palace, and never himself participated in either the exile of Egypt or the enslavement, still he was deeply concerned for the pain of the enslaved Israelites, rather than his own pain of having to flee to Midian. In fact, he refers to the land of Midian as, אֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה , a foreign land, because it was so distant from his enslaved brethren in Egypt.

The greatness of Moses is clearly evident from the fact that at the moment of Moses’ highest joy, when his first child was born, he preoccupied himself with the pain of his brothers, the Jewish people.

It is reported that the great Jewish leader, Rabbi Elazar Shach  would never eat breakfast until late in the morning because he was pained that so many Jewish children in Israel were not getting a religious education. He did not want to eat while secular children were hungry for Torah.

May you be blessed.