In this week’s parsha the Torah mentions Levi passing away at the age of 137 (Shmos, 6:16). Rashi (seemingly bothered as to why the Torah only chooses to reveal Levi’s total years but none the other shevatim) explains that the sole purpose for being provided with this information about Levi is to teach us that although the Yidden were in Mitzrayim for 210 years the cruel slavery did not begin immediately. You see, we were told earlier (Shmos, 1:6-8) that as long as one of the brothers still lived the nastiness did not really begin. Levi lived the longest, thus it was only upon his passing that the slavery began. The Sifsay Chachamim does the math concluding that the forced slavery was for 116 of the 210 years. The question is, if this (116 years of slavery) is an important piece of information for the student of the Torah to know, why doesn’t the Torah just tell us so? Why does it only reveal this information through the age of Levi? Also, Rashi seemingly contradicts himself when he tells us at the beginning of parshas Vayechi (Beraishis, 47:27) that the servitude began when Yaakov died and that was many years before the death of Levi (77 to be exact).
Perhaps we can answer these questions using a stunning vort from the Shelah Hakadosh. During the mishpachology of Reuven, Shimon & Levi in this parsha (Shmos, 6:14-16) only by Levi does the passuk say “Ve’aileh shmos bnai Levi…” -”And these are the names of Levi’s children.” [With Reuven and Shimon it just says “Bnai Reuven… Bnai Shimon…” – “The sons of Reuven were… The sons of Shimon were…”, it does not add the word “shmos”.] Explains the Shelah that the added word “shmos” tells us that Levi, even though he and his clan were not included in the actual physical suffering of Mitzrayim, nevertheless wished to somehow share in the suffering of his brethren. So he deliberately named his sons with names that captured the pain of a nation. Gershon for they were gairim sham – foreigners and second-class citizens in the land, Khos, the Hebrew for grinding of teeth, a habit begun by the Yidden as a way to bear their suffering, And Merori of course from the word maror– bitterness. What a beautiful thing it is to take ones most precious commodity, one’s own children, and through their names reach out to those really suffering and let them know that you truly and deeply care about their predicament. You are letting them know that their pain is your pain, and their anguish is part and parcel of your emotions, too. And those in the trenches recognize this and makes their suffering a little easier and somewhat more palatable.
So maybe the slavery did begin as soon as Yaakov Avinu passed away. But with men still around like Levi who boosted the morale of the masses, the Yidden were able to stay upbeat and encouraged. [We mentioned that this encouragement lasted for 77 years, the amount of time Levi lived after his father’s death. Note that 77 is the gematria of the word “Az” – “strength”. For that is what Levi provided: fortitude and strength in the face of such pain.] It was only after Levi, the pillar of chizzuk, died that the full brunt of the slavery was felt by all as if it had just begun.
And thus began a new and painful chapter in the shibud Mitzrayim.
Have a great Shabbos.
Rabbi Nosson Greenberg is rov of Khal Machzikei Torah of Far Rockaway, N.Y., and maggid shiur at Yeshiva of Far Rockaway.