We find in Parshas Shemos a potentially surprising fact: not all the Jews were enslaved:
ויאמר אלהם מלך מצרים למה משה ואהרן תפריעו את העם ממעשיו לכו לסבלתיכם – The king of Egypt said to them, “Moshe and Aharon, why do you disturb the people from its work? Go to your own burdens”. (5:4)
Rashi quotes a Midrash that the tribe of Levi were not oppressed by the Egyptians, which was why Moshe and Aharon, who were from Levi, were freely able to go where they pleased. But why were they exempt?
Ramban explains how every nation had elders and wise men to teach the nation their respective laws. Pharaoh therefore left Levi alone in order to allow them their role. R’ Simcha Ziesel Broide notes that if a person like Pharaoh could understand and accept that every nation, and even it’s slaves, need spiritual guidance and role models, how much more so do we need to respect and cherish Torah scholars, and help establish Torah as much as we can.
Daas Zkeinim explains how the Egyptians slowly manipulated the Jews into working, rather than a sudden enslavement, which could provoke a revolution. The Jews who participated at first were then forced to continue against their will. Yet the people from Levi, knowing that they were destined to serve Hashem, refused to compromise and cooperate. They did not participate on the first day, and never became committed or obligated.
Maharal questions how, if Hashem told Avraham his descendants would be enslaved, (Bereishis 15:13-14.) how could Levi not be included in the slavery? Maharal answers, that truly Sheivet Levi was not included in this prophesy. Levi are the “portion of Hashem” set aside from the rest of the Jewish Nation, dedicated to His service. Rabbeinu Bachye goes so far as to say that Levi was the “tithe” of his brothers.
Pharaoh knew according to the prophesy, that the nation that enslaved Avraham’s offspring would be severely punished. He interpreted that if he did not enslave the entire Jewish nation, he would be free of the repercussions. He chose Levi specifically out of respect, for even Yaakov honored Levi by not allowing them to take part in his burial. His mistake was that Levi are not counted among the rest of the Jews in that prophesy for the above reason, meaning that he did in fact enslave all of Avraham’s offspring as related to the prophesy, and was therefore punished.
The Mishneh L’Melech proves that inheriting the Land of Israel was only possible through being enslaved in Egypt. Anyone who would eventually get a portion in the Land would have to endure slavery; those who were not going to get a portion need not be enslaved. Esav left Eretz Yisroel for this reason; he wanted nothing to do with enslavement. Levi too, who were not to receive a portion in the Land, did not have a reason to be enslaved.
Maharil Diskin shares a fascinating idea. The prophesy to Avraham was that the oppression would start when his offspring would be “strangers in a land not their own.” Since the land of Goshen in Egypt was originally given to Sarah as a gift by Pharaoh, there the Jewish nation could not be “aliens” in Goshen. As long as the Jews resided in Goshen, the terms of enslavement would not begin. The verse states, “The Children of Israel were fruitful, teemed, increased, and became strong – very very much so; and the land became filled with them” (Shemos 1:7). The Maharil Diskin explains that it is implied by the population increase that the land would become filled with them. Why state the obvious? Rather, the pasuk is teaching that they did not want to stay isolated in Goshen, and instead they branched out into the rest of Egypt and became involved in their society. In leaving Goshen, they allowed for their own enslavement. Levi, however, stayed and served Hashem in Goshen.
The Maharil Diskin is also explaines a Zohar (Beraishis 27a). The Zohar expounds on the passuk in Shemos 1:14, וימררו את חייהם בעבודה קשה בחומר ובלבנים כו’, and says, קשה – זו קושיא, בחומר – זו קל וחומר, ובלבנים – זו ליבון הלכה. The Maharil Diskin enlightens us by saying that the enslavement to Egypt occurred only to those not already “enslaved” to Torah. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 99b) says that every person was created to work. The Mishna (Avos 3:5) says, “Whoever accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah, the yoke of the government is removed from him.” We see that when we fulfill our necessity to work by toiling in learning Torah, it “exempts” us from the necessity of doing other, potentially more physical labor. The Jews in Egypt who did not carry out their requisite work by exerting themselves with Torah, needed to fulfill it with the physical enslavement to Egypt. I heard many times from my Rebbe and Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Daniel Lehrfield Shlit”a, that proof of this is that Sheivet Levi was not enslaved. Since they continued to learn Torah at the same strenuous and laborious level as the slave-work of the rest of Klall Yisroel, they fulfilled the decree of slavery prophesized to Avraham by learning, instead of manual labor.
In a similar vein, Panim Yafos says that Sheivet Levi learned Torah and kept the mitzvah of bris milah, whereas the rest of the Jewish nation did neither. Sheivet Levi’s merits protected them, unlike the rest.
Finally, the Maskil L’David interestingly learns that the people of Levi were not fully enslaved due to Pharaoh’s own daughter’s intervention. In raising Moshe as her own, Bisya had an affinity towards him and asked of her father to exclude Moshe’s tribe, Levi.
This explanation is particularly fascinating for it implies that up until Basya took the initiative, Sheivet Levi too was oppressed. The Maskil L’David explicitly writes that Sheivet Levi was subjugated even after Basya’s intervention, the only difference being the intensity of the work. While the rest of the Jews worked unimaginably hard, Sheivet Levi only had to perform regular labor.
This would explain a question that has bothered me for a while. If Levi were not oppressed whatsoever, on Pesach, why would Kohanim and Leviim sit and say, “Avadim hayiinu” – “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…”?
[The simple explanation that one could say according to the other opinions that Sheivet Levi was truly exempt from all labor, is that since most of the Jews went through what they did, therefore the Jews as a whole (including Levi) need to recognize and relive this on the Seder night. Another possibility is as the Chasam Sofer writes, there were two types of exiles happening in Egypt. One was physical, the other was spiritual; Bnei Yisrael had reached the 49th level of spiritual impurity due to their Egyptian surroundings and influences. If so, we can suggest that even if Levi was not enslaved physically, they certainly could have been affected and “enslaved” by Pharaoh in the spiritual sense. This would explain why Kohanim and Leviim say “Avadim hayiinu”; spiritual slaves.]
According to the Maskil L’David, however, new light is shed on the matter. Levi too were physically enslaved to Pharaoh.
Even according to the other opinions, that Levi were truly free from enslavement, this does not imply that living in Egypt was a walk in the park for them. Although they may not have been enslaved or worked helpless, their lives were still in danger. This is clear as we see that Moshe’s father, Amrom, went so far as to divorce his wife (Sota 12a). He did so because of the futility in childbirth due to the law that all male newborns be thrown into the Nile. Even after he was convinced by Miriam to take Yocheved back, by which they had their third child Moshe, there came a point when Yocheved could no longer hide Moshe. She was forced to place him in the little boat in the Nile. All this notwithstanding that their family was from Levi. Furthermore, the Meshech Chochma (4:20) writes that Moshe, concerned that the Jewish People would not believe his claims of imminent Heavenly redemption, decided to bring his wife and family to Egypt (a thing he would only do if he was certain that they would not be in danger) in order to heighten Klall Yisroels’ trust in Hashem. Now, if Sheivet Levi were completely above all cruel Egyptian devastation, what proof of Heavenly protection would it be for Moshe to bring his family there?
Furthermore, Yalkut Shimoni says that when Aharon met Moshe on the latter’s way down to Egypt, and saw him bringing his family, he said to him, “We are pained by [the distress of] those Jews already in Egypt, and you want to bring in more?!” Maharal points out that from this we see that clearly life was bitter for Sheivet Levi as well.
After writing all this, and after being bothered for a few years by the question of why Kohanim and Leviim say the Haggada, I was finally shown Simchas
Haregel, the Chida’s commentary to the Haggada. Commenting on the excerpt: “כל המרבה לספר ביציאת יצרים הרי זה משובך” – “All who speak plentifully of story of the exodus is praiseworthy,” the Chida writes that “כל” – “All” is meant to include even Kohanim and Leviim (כל – same initials as כהן לוי). Even they shall speak of the exodus, despite their not being oppressed. The Chida give two explanations for this.
Firstly, even though they were not oppressed, they were not able to leave Egypt of their own volition; so they too were freed by Hashem. Secondly, had the Jews stayed in Egypt but one more second than they did, they would have sunk to unimaginable lows and impurity which would have effected even Levi (similar to the Chasam Sofer quoted above). They too need to recognize and praise Hashem for His salvation. In fact, the Chida writes that he told this over to a Gadol, who replied that he too had thought of this interpretation, and added that converts too are included in “All.” It is for this reason that the next item in the Haggada is the story with R’ Eliezer, R’ Yehoshua, R’ Elazar Ben Azaria, R’ Akiva and R’ Tarfon who sat in Bnei Brak telling over the story of the exodus all night long. Rabi Yehoshua was a Levi, Rabi Elazar Ben Azaria and Rabi Tarfon were Kohanim, and Rabi Akiva came from converts.
From a somewhat historical standpoint, Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky explains at length all these goings-on regarding Levi. As a brief summary, it was all Yosef’s doing. Yosef had a particular wisdom – that of how to stay alive spiritually in a foreign environment. He learned this from Yaakov, who in turn learned it from Shem and Ever in order to survive living with Lavan. This wisdom enabled Yosef to recognize that to insure the spiritual (not to mention physical) survival of the Jewish People, he needed to take measures to isolate and protect Levi. This was in order that they in particular would continue to grow in Hashem’s service uninhibited by anything or anyone, to be a “light” and source of guidance to the rest of the nation. It was Yosef who established the law in Egypt that priests were to be excluded from taxes and other governmental rules and regulations. Due to Yosef’s foresight, Levi played the essential role in the Jewish People’s survival.
Incidentally, there is a fascinating Meshech Chochma in Parshas Vaeira (6:13). The passuk says, “וידבר ה’ אל משה ואל אהרן ויצום אל בני ישראל ואל פרעה מלך מצרים להוציא את בני ישראל מארץ מצרים” – “Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon and commanded them regarding the Children of Israel and regarding Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.” The commentaries offer various approaches to understand “ויצום אל בני ישראל” (literally: “to the Children of Israel”); we have translated according to Rashi’s logical interpretation (“regarding the Children of Israel”). The Meshech Chochma, however, learns the pasuk literally. Without quoting all of his proofs and extrapolations, simply put the Meshech Chochma learns that Sheivet Reuven, Shimon and Levi all held places of stature in Egypt. They were also slave-owners. Jewish slave-owners. That is why Hashem commanded Moshe and Aharon to not only tell Pharaoh to release the Jews from bondage, but even to command the Jewish slave-owners to do so as well. The Meshech Chochma writes further that the reason Hashem did not allow these three Shevatim to be enslaved was not because of a positive nature (i.e. some positive distinction that played a role in their protection); on the contrary, it was due to their spiritual weakness resulting from Yaakov Avinu’s strong final words to these particular Shevatim. Had they been enslaved, they would have been lost forever.