Rabbi Emanuel Cohn
Former Avrech in Montreal (2001-2003)
Founder of “Torah MiCinema” – Teaching Film and Judaism
In this week’s Parasha, right after the destruction of the Egyptian firstborns, we read a Divine order which is very complimenting to Jewish firstborns: “Then God spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘Sanctify to Me every firstborn, the first offspring of every womb among the sons of Israel, both of man and beast; it belongs to Me.’” (Shemot 13,1)
The sanctity of the firstborn was not limited to the Jewish people, but rather a common reality in the socio-religious order of the nations of the ancient East. Regarding the firstborns in Jewish society, the Talmud even mentions that until the erection of the Tabernacle, spiritual services such as offerings-were performed by the firstborns (Bavli, Zevachim 115b). They indeed were the spiritual leaders of the Jewish People.
What happened with the establishment of the Tabernacle? Why did the firstborns cease to be considered la crème de la crème? The book of Bamidbar tells us about a groundbreaking, revolutionary shift which happened to the social order of the Jewish people: “Then God said to Moshe: ‘Number every firstborn male of the sons of Israel from a month old and upward, and make a list of their names. You shall take the Levites for Me, I am God, INSTEAD of all the firstborn among the sons of Israel, and the cattle of the Levites INSTEAD of all the firstborn among the cattle of the sons of Israel.” (Bamidbar 3, 40-41)
I believe that this small section constitutes one of the most important events in the history of the Jewish people. Just imagine! Day for day, year for year, the firstborns were the unshaken leaders of the Jewish people, they were in charge of the sacrifices, which means that they were the official vehicle to connect to God. And now, all of a sudden, they are replaced by one tribe, the Levites! It is thus not surprising that -following Ibn Ezra’s interpretation- the big revolt of Korach happened as a direct reaction to this sociological change. He and all the firstborns with him were complaining that Moshe was corrupt by handing the spiritual leadership over to his own tribe, in other words that he sacrificed the old hierarchy for what we call in Israel “Protektzia” (or Vitamin P)…
Now we must ask what brought about this revolutionary shift. The Torah only describes this “new social order”, rather than giving a reason for it. However, the Midrash (ibid., Bamidbar Rabba) explains that the shift was a direct result of the firstborns’ involvement at the sin of the golden calf. The firstborns were supposed to become the Priests in the new Temple, but they did not deserve it, and therefore only the Levites, who refrained from participating at the sin of the golden calf, received the honor. Here we see a very important message: Your social status is irrelevant when it comes to holiness and leadership. What counts is your conduct.
The truth is that this shift was not implanted into the Jewish people “out of nowhere”. As early as the time of our patriarchs, our forefather Jacob disliked the old hierarchic system. This might be the reason he decided to take the right of the firstborn –and the blessings which come with it- from his brother Esau, simply because he felt that his biologically older brother did not deserve this status. All his life Jacob struggles with the widespread social order, trying to introduce a new structure in which the leader would not be the person who was born first, but rather the person who deserves it in light of his conduct. If we look at the life of Jacob, we can clearly observe the gradual steps which led to his total nullification of the social order.
Jacob’s claim in his youth for the birthright is indeed far-fetched, but not totally revolutionary. Indeed at his birth he was not the firstborn, but he was a twin with the firstborn, even holding the latter’s heels. In other words he formed together with his firstborn brother one physical entity.
When it came to his own children, Jacob took the leadership from his firstborn Reuben and gave it into the hands of Joseph. One verse in the Tanach says that explicitly: “Now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel -for he was the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph the son of Israel; so that he is not enrolled in the genealogy according to the birthright” (1 Chronicles 5:1). Even though this step is quite revolutionary, it is not the final stage, since Joseph was also a firstborn, being the first child of Rachel!
Only at the end of his days, when Jacob is an aging grandfather, he has the courage to totally uproot the old hierarchic system. When he is about to bless his two grandchildren Menasheh and Ephraim, he crosses his hands, laying his right hand on the head of Ephraim and his left hand on Menasheh’s head although the latter is the firstborn. “When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on Ephraim’s head, it displeased him; and he grasped his father’s hand to remove it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. Joseph said to his father: ‘Not so, my father, for this one is the firstborn. Place your right hand on his head.’ But his father refused and said: ‘I know, my son, I know; he also will become a people and he also will be great. However, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his descendants shall become a multitude of nations’” (Bereshith 48, 17-19). Joseph represents the final attempt to secure the established social hierarchy, but Jacob does not believe in it anymore, and now he has the courage to transfer the birthrighright-leadership from the biological firstborn to the one who truly deserves it.
This educational message is not only expressed in the biblical exchange of the firstborns by the Levites and Kohanim (who also grew out of the tribe of Levy), but also in a most ironic way in contemporary Jewish Law. With the exception of the Laws of inheritance and the ceremony of Pidyon haBen (redeeming of the firstborn), there is only one small Halachah which actually gives a role to the firstborns: As we know a Levy is supposed to wash a Kohen’s hands before the priestly blessing (doochening). What happens if there is no Levy around? The Mishnah Berurah stipulates that in such a circumstance a Bechor, a firstborn should do this job “since he is also a bit holy” (see Mishnah Berurah 22, on Shulchan Aruch O”Ch, 128:6). What an interesting observation: The only daily Halachah (at least in Israel) in which firstborns do get some special role is by SERVING THE KOHEN!
Once again Judaism makes it clear for everyone: Ethics and theology take the place of biology.