Avraham Avinu was told that his children would go into exile and have to work for four hundred years. Chazal tell us that the tribe of Levi was spared from the servitude, and there are various reasons given. The most prominent of these is that the members of this tribe didn’t volunteer for the workforce (before forced labor began) and therefore were exempt once the servitude began. The question is: The prophecy seems to indicate that all of klal Yisrael would be subject to the servitude, not excluding Levi?!
In this week’s parsha, the verse 1:14 describes an aspect of the servitude:
…בְּחֹמֶר וּבִלְבֵנִים, וּבְכָל-עֲבֹדָה בַּשָּׂדֶה אֵת כָּל-עֲבֹדָתָם…
…in mortar and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field; in all their service…
The Zohar gives an explanation of each word of the verse:
- “Mortar” (chomer) refers to a kal v’chomer (fortiori)
- “Bricks” (uyvlvanim) refers to whitening (lavan), or clarifying the halacha.
- “All manner of service in the field” (uvchol avoda b’sadeh) refers to learning breisos (literally – external mishnayos).
- “In all their service” (es kol avodasam) refers to Mishnayos.
Rav Shalom Schwadron explains that the prophecies that the Bnei Yisrael would have to be in servitude was without any exceptions. However, the type of servitude was given with some “wiggle room”. Those who chose could have swapped physical mortar and bricks for the “avodas perach” of the beis hamedrash, which is what the tribe of Levi did.
I heard this idea also through a story which happened to the Chofetz Chaim:
There was a man who accepted upon himself to start a chesed organization. The success in this organization grew and grew until it came to the point that his business was becoming neglected. His wife told him “Your responsibility demands that you involve yourself with your business and let someone else ‘do the mitzvah’”. The man decided to go to the saintly Chofetz Chaim to seek advice over whether to continue to pursue the chesed organization, or devote more time to his business. After hearing the man’s query, the Chofetz Chaim quoted Psalm 23:6 “Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me…” The Chofetz Chaim asked “A person is supposed to run after doing chesed – chesed doesn’t run after him!?” which seems to be what the verse implies. He answered: “Sometimes a man has a decree on him from Heaven to be persecuted (רדיפת). Dovid Hamelech asked Hashem “If there is a decree of persecution upon me, may it be that I am persecuted by mitzvos.” In other words, the Chofetz Chaim told the man, if you stop being involved with your chesed organization, you will still be involved with other things which will pull you away from your business. Therefore, better to be involved with the chesed organization.
This is the same idea that is taught by Reb Shalom. Often when we are just trying to live our lives, we are badgered to be involved in a mitzvah and we say “Why should I be involved? I would like to have a hassle-free life!” Bear in mind if it is decreed on you to be hassled, it will be with either this mitzvah or something else which isn’t a mitzvah. It can be kal or chomer – easy or hard – but you will be stressed.