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Bo 5772

By: Rav Michael Susman

Kedushat Bechor – Rav Michael Susman As we reach the end of this week’s Parsha, we are told of the first mitzvah to be given after Yetziat Mizrayim. This is none other the commandment of Kedushat Bechor (13:1), the obligation to sanctify the first born. Depending on how we understand the previous passuk, this is perhaps unsurprising. The previous passuk, the final one in Perek 12 (12:51) states “And it was on that very day that Hashem took Bnei Yisrael out ofEgypt in their groups”. It is a bit difficult to “pin this passuk down”. According to the mesora it is preceded by a “satum” and followed by a “patuach”, meaning that this single passuk constitutes an independent parsha. Moreover, the passuk does not seem to add anything to what we have already been told earlier (12:41-42). So what is this passuk telling us? Is this parsha connected to the previous passukim or is it an introduction to those passukim that follow? While Ramban suggests that the passuk refers us back to Yetziat Mitzrayim, Ibn Ezra and Ralbag and Rashbam believe that it is connected to the following passukim. Ramban explains that while Bnei Yisrael were technically free to leave Egypt in the middle of the night, immediately after Makkat Bechorot, in practice they did not do so. Our passuk comes to teach us that they only left the following day, with the various groups converging to leave Egypt en masse. The other Rishonim understand that the passuk describing Bnei Yisrael leaving Egypt is in fact connected to the mitzvah of Kedushat Bechor. Makkat Bechorot strikes the Egyptians at midnight. As a result Bnei Yisrael leave the next day, and we are given,at that very time, the mitzvah of Kedushat Bechor. According to this explanation we can easily understand why Kedushat Bechor is the first mitzvah given after Yetziat Mizrayim. Since the exodus was triggered by the final plague of Makkat Bechorot, we are immediately commanded to sanctify the first born. The fact that we are talking not only about sanctifying the first born but also Pidyon Bechor, redeeming the first born, is clear from the subsequent passukim (11-15). In fact, Sefer HaChinuch, when discussing the mitzvah actually counts three separate mitzvoth. The first is to sanctify the first born (#18) which he says focuses on the first born of a kosher animal, despite the passuk’s mention of adam, man. This is followed by the mitzvah of redeeming the first born of a donkey (#22) discussed in passukim 12-13, and then the mitzvah of Pidyon Bechor (#392). Interestingly enough however, when explaining the reason for the Mitzva of Pidyon Bechor the Chinuch refers us back to the reasoning he offered for the mitzvah of sanctifying a first born, clearly indicating that the two are linked. The fact that pidyon is not immediately discussed allows for us to expand our understanding of the idea that the first born have been sanctified. What is the nature of this sanctification? Rashi simply states that Hashem declares that he has acquired the first born for Himself by dint of the fact that He did not strike them when he killed the first born of Egypt. The Chinuch also goes in this direction with his second explanation, stating that we sanctify the first born to remember the miracle that Hashem performed by slaughtering the first born of the Egyptians while sparing those of Bnei Yisrael. One might also suggest this to mean that the Bechorim now need to be redeemed, since they have been sanctified. Seforno goes as far as to claim that just as any object which is sanctified can not be used for ordinary purposes without first undergoing a process of redemption which transfers the holiness to another object, so too the bechorim must undergo such a procedure. This is of course an extreme position. I am unaware of anyone who suggests that failure to do the mitzvah of Pidyon Bechor creates a situation of improperly using sanctified objects! Nonetheless, his position highlights that there is real kedusha in a Bechor. This leads us to the second level of this sanctification. As Rashbam explains, Hashem is taking the first born to serve him in the Mikdash. Thus this sanctification had (at least initially) very real implications. The originally conceived of role for the Bechorim was to do the avoda. It was only when the bechorim failed to defend Hashem during Chet HaEgel, instead choosing to sacrifice to the Golden Calf, that this aspect of kedusha was stripped from them. The Rav, as quoted in Rabbi Avishai David’s Darosh Darash Yosef (pg 139-145), developed a deeper understanding of the connection between the sanctification of the Bechor and Makkat Bechorot. The Rav sought to compare the dominance of the Bechor in antiquity, as demonstrated by the place of the Bechor in Egyptian culture, with the primacy that the Torah bestows on the Bechor in Jewish society. To do so, the Rav referred to the first time that Hashem threatens the first born of Egypt (4:22-23). In those passukim Hashem charges Moshe to tell Paro that “Israel is my first born. I say to you, send out my sons so that they may worship me, but you refuse to do so. Behold, I will kill your first born son.” Why does Hashem refer to Bnei Yisrael as His first born, and why does He threaten the Egyptian first born? The Rav explains that the role of the Bechor in antiquity was an extension of the father’s authority. The father, as the strongest in the family, enforced his will. His oldest son continued the tradition, often tyrannizing his siblings and even his mother. The Rav refers to what developed as a patriarchal slave society, whereby the head of the household, by dint of his position as the strongest, was able to enforce his will on the rest of the household. The first born son merely continued this cruel practice. Power was exercised through fear. As slaves, Bnei Yisrael found themselves at the mercy of this society. Everyone was stronger than a slave, so therefore the slave suffered at the hands of everyone. God therefore looked to destroy the underpinnings of such a cruel society, and He therefore targeted the first born. In contrast to Egyptian society, the Torah envisions the Bechor as the outcome of both patriarchy and matriarchy. This explains why the Bechor is defined as “Peter Rechem”, the first born from the mother’s womb. The mother is as least as important an influence on the Bechor and his primacy as the father. In Judaism, the Bechor does not represent power, but rather Kedusha. A Bechor is responsible for the wellbeing of his family and his people. It is not coincidental that amongst the Jewish people it was generally not the actual Bechor who assumed leadership. Yaakov and Rivka, fought for the Bechora precisely because they recognized this truism. Power and Kedusha, says the Rav, are mutually exclusive. Thus, Hashem consciously places these two models of Bechora side by side in his initial message to Paro. And he destroys the Egyptian model in his final message. If we accept the Rav’s analysis, we can suggest a more nuanced understanding of the anticipated place of the Bechor in Jewish society than we usually imagine. The Bechor was not meant to do the avoda simply by birthright. Rather, the Bechor was supposed to represent what birthright could contribute to the nation. The Bechor was meant to demonstrate a level of sanctity that everyone around him should aspire to. When the test of Chet HaEgel came, and the bechorim failed so miserably, that mantle of kedusha as an inspiration was passed to the Cohanim.

 

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