VaEra: The Name of Empathy

“These are the heads of their fathers’ houses: the sons of Reuven (Reuben)… And these are the names of the sons of Levi… Ger’shon and Kehath and Merari.” (Exodus 6:14-16) 

Why does the Torah emphasize that “these are the names of the sons of Levi,” rather than just telling us, “these are the sons of Levi,” and listing the names, like the other tribes? We know that these are their names, so why the emphasis? Among all the tribes of Israel, only the tribe of Levi remained free of enslavement in Egypt. But although they remained free, they did not elevate themselves above the suffering of their brethren, but mourned the plight of their fellow Israelites alongside them. To this effect, to carry their brothers’ burden upon their own hearts, they imparted names to the members of their tribe that expressed the pain of the enslavement of their brethren: Ger’shon, from the word ger, or stranger, connoting Israel’s unwelcome status in Egypt; Kehath, meaning to “set on edge,” as the lives of their kinsmen in Egypt hung on the edge of oblivion; and of course, Merari, from mar, “bitter,” as the Egyptians embittered the lives of the Israelites through the torment of slavery. Therefore the Torah acknowledges the nobility of Levi in not turning away from their brothers’ pain. So too, we must learn this lesson, sensitize ourselves to the pain of others, and share in their pain. Through this empathy, by sharing the burden of others, we can hopefully do at least a small part to relieve the pain of others. Through prayer, meditation and action, may we merit ultimately to eliminate the world of its pain, and take part in the transformation of our world to one of joy for all mankind.

Based on Shla”h, Parshas VaEra

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