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The Message of the Firstborn

Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16 )

by Rabbi Yissocher Frand

The last and most spectacular of the plagues was the plague of the firstborn, during which Hashem skipped over every Jewish firstborn and slew every Egyptian firstborn. Because of this miracle, the firstborn of the Jewish people, human and animal, are forever sanctified. Originally, the firstborn were to be the priests who performed the holy service in the Beis Hamikdash, but they lost this privilege when they sinned with the Golden Calf. Nonetheless, despite their fall from grace, the firstborn still remained sanctified regarding pidyon haben, firstborn animals and other observances.

Rav Simchah Zissel, the Alter of Kelm, once wrote a letter to Baron Rothschild, praising him for his exertions on behalf of the Jewish people. In this letter, Rav Simchah Zissel raises an interesting question. What did the Jewish firstborn do in Egypt to earn this high level of sanctification? True, they were involved in a great kiddush Hashem, but did they do anything at all to make it happen? They contributed nothing to their rescue during the plague. They also had nothing to do with their being born first. Everything happened without their involvement and assistance. Their role was absolutely passive.

Clearly, even passive participation in a kiddush Hashem is a very great thing. A person gains tremendous merit if Hashem chooses him to play a role in a kiddush Hashem, even if it is only a passive role.

"If this is the reward for a person who has a passive role in a kiddush Hashem," wrote Rav Simchah Zissel, "how can we even begin to imagine the reward of a person that actively makes a kiddush Hashem? You, Baron Rothschild, considering who you are and what you have done, have actively and publicly sanctified the Name of Hashem, and there is no limit to the honor, respect and gratitude you have earned."

This is the lesson we must all draw from the mitzvah of pidyon haben. If a passive contribution to a kiddush Hashem sanctified the firstborn, we can be sure that an active contribution would certainly provide at least such a level of sanctification if not a greater one. And the opportunities are always there for us. We can make a kiddush Hashem in the way we conduct our daily lives, the way we walk, the way we talk, the way we negotiate, the way we do business, the way we treat other people, both Jewish and non-Jewish. It is within our power to cause people who observe us to remark (Yoma 86a), "Look at him! Look how beautifully a religious Jew behaves." This is such an easy way to make a kiddush Hashem, such an easy way to gain tremendous reward both in this world and the next.

One of the rules of pidyon haben is that only the natural firstborn of the mother is sanctified as a bechor, a holy firstborn. If the child is the first for the father but not for the mother, or if he is delivered by caesarean section, he is not a bechor.

Let us think for a moment. What is the reason for the mitzvah of bechor? It reminds us that Hashem skipped over the Jewish firstborn while He was slaying the Egyptian firstborn. Now, the Talmud tells us specifically that Hashem slew all the firstborn of Egypt, both the firstborn for the mother and the firstborn for the father or any other way they can be construed as a firstborn. If so, shouldn't the mitzvah of bechor also extend to both the firstborn for the mother and the firstborn for the father?

The Avnei Shoham offers a solution based on an analogy to the mitzvah of bikurim, the offering of the first fruits. What is the purpose of bringing the first fruits? The Torah tells us (Devarim 8:17-18), "And you may say in your heart, 'My power and the strength of my hand created all this wealth.' Then you shall remember Hashem your Lord, for He is the One that gives you the power to create wealth."

A person can easily fall into the trap of thinking that everything comes to him naturally. He planted the seed. He nurtured it. The tree grew. It gave fruit. It was all natural, with no involvement from Hashem. But when we bring the first fruits to the Beis Hamikdash we are reminded that the most natural process still requires the miraculous intervention of Hashem, that we are always dependent on Divine providence no matter how naturally everything seems to be coming our way.

The mitzvah of bechor has a similar message. When we have a firstborn child, we may easily fall into the same trap. When people have all sorts of trouble having a child, they turn to Hashem and plead with him. And when the child is finally born, they know full well that it is a priceless gift from Hashem. But when things go normally, they may not realize that the child is just as great a gift from Hashem. People get married, they have a child, and they think: What could be more normal, more natural? They forget that they owe Hashem an enormous debt of gratitude. This is the role of the mitzvah of bechor. It reminds them that Hashem spread a protective wing over all the firstborn Jewish children in Egypt. Just as those firstborns were a Divine gift to their parents, so are all the firstborns and all other children for all generations.

The Torah, however, chooses to give us this reminder only when everything goes normally and naturally, because that is when we are most likely to forget that we have to thank Hashem. We are less likely to make this mistake when things do not go with the greatest smoothness, and therefore, the Torah does not deem a reminder necessary.

When a child is the firstborn to his mother by natural birth, everything has indeed gone as expected. But when he is the firstborn only to his father and not to his mother, something has obviously gone off the track. The mother may have had a child by a previous marriage that didn't work out. If the child was born by caesarean section, it is also a deviation from the normal and natural. In such cases, we are already painfully aware that our fate is in Hashem's hands, and we don't need the mitzvah of bechor to remind us of it.

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