Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Nasso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)A Rain It Fall, but the Dirt it Tough: Appreciating Life’s Challenges

Last week’s Parsha described the census that was taken of the tribe of Levi, starting with those 1 month and older. This week’s Parsha continues with another census of the members of the tribe of Levi, this one only of males between the ages of 30-50. In both counting’s, we find a surprisingly low number: 22,273 in last week’s portion, 8,580 in this week’s – far fewer in number than any other tribe.
What makes this even stranger is the fact that Levi was the only tribe that was not forced into labor in Egypt. The Midrash records that the slave labor in Egypt was started by a massive public works campaign, one in which Pharaoh himself participated. But soon afterwards, the Egyptians slipped away and forced the Jews to remain. The tribe of Levi was preoccupied with Torah education and therefore never joined the labor force; they were thus never forced to remain in Egypt. Knowing this, one would think that they should have been the largest tribe because they lived in relative tranquility (they were the only group of Jews who weren’t enslaved). How can we explain their small numbers?
Ramban explains that it was precisely the fact that they were not subjugated to the hard work that led to their small numbers. He explains that G-d gave a special blessing to the Jewish people that the “the more they oppressed them, the more they multiplied, and so did they gain strength” (Exodus 1:12). Thus, it was the oppressed tribes that grew with prodigious blessing, while the tribe of Levi only grew at a normal rate, and consequently had the comparatively lower numbers they had. Oppression, though something few would welcome, can sometimes be the harbinger of special blessing.
This message is reinforced in Tehillim (Psalms 147:8): הַֽמְכַסֶּ֬ה שָׁמַ֨יִם |    בְּעָבִ֗ים הַמֵּכִ֣ין לָאָ֣רֶץ מָטָ֑ר הַמַּצְמִ֖יחַ. “He covers the heavens with clouds, He prepares rain for the land,”. Rav Tzadok HaCohen (1823-1900) explains that we often go through difficult times – times in which the horizon appears dark and cloudy – but what is really happening is that G-d is preparing for an outpouring of rain, and blessing. We see this in the germination of seeds, as well, the process that allows for all life on earth. At first, the seed disintegrates, seemingly beaten to nothingness. But then a new life sprouts forth. G-d’s miraculous nature has a way of showing us the light when all we can see is darkness.
There are two classic Yiddish expressions that come to mind. “G-d gives us burdens and He also gives us shoulders.” Yes, sometimes life’s vicissitudes do seem like a dark cloud, but it is important to bear in mind that if He gave us that particular challenge—whether it’s with our children, marriage, ability to earn a living, lack of self-esteem, or anything else—it means we have the ability to deal with it.
That brings us to the second Yiddish expression: “Ask not for a lighter burden, but for stronger shoulders.” If someone has a difficult boss, instead of asking G-d for a new boss, ask for wisdom in how to deal with her or the self-confidence of not feeling trapped in that job and finding the strength to search for a new one. Don’t pray that your spouse should change—it’s no coincidence that you married that person—pray that you understand your spouse and have wisdom to deal with the challenges of your marriage. (Here’s a common refrain I’ve heard for decades when counseling couples; When I stopped seeking change in my wife or husband, but instead accepted the responsibility for my part of the marriage, I saw huge results and felt closer and more love than ever.)
I know a woman with a mishagas (idiosyncrasy) that she can’t sleep on any pillow other than hers. Her husband is a highly successful lawyer; they have no financial worries. When they go on vacation to the most luxurious resorts, she always takes her pillow. This bothered him but he ultimately learned to accept that quirk. When his criticism ceased and was able to accept her as is, she was able to release new reservoirs of love for him that had always been there but were stopped by dams of negative comments. She didn’t change, he did.
Challenges in life are G-d’s way of allowing us to reach our potential because it brings out abilities and strengths, we never knew we possessed. Much rain can turn dirt into mud but sometimes the dirt is so robust that it withstands the rain.
That toughness, the ability to stay strong as Jews and not assimilate, is the ability that has kept our nation alive until today. If we have that trait as a people, we certainly have it as individuals. Let’s use those big shoulders of ours and if we don’t have them yet, let’s pray to get some.