One of Judaism’s most important gifts to the world is the notion that greatness is not an inheritance but an achievement. This statement is made in a most profound way through the redemption of the firstborn effected for the first time in this week’s parsha:
“And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘And I, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every firstborn that openeth the womb among the children of Israel; and the Levites shall be Mine; for all the firstborn are Mine: on the day that I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I hallowed unto Me all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast, Mine they shall be: I am the Lord.’” (Numbers 3:11-13).
All the classic commentaries explain here that the Levites, in recognition of their fidelity to God during the Golden Calf debacle, were chosen to replace the firstborns who had betrayed their leadership position at that grievous event. In this transference of position, primogeniture, on the one hand, was abrogated, teaching that status is not something inherited but something merited; on the other hand, it would seem that one patrimony was simply replaced by another. To understand the import of the sanctification of the firstborn and their later replacement by the Levites, we must return to the text that introduced the idea – the culmination of the ten plagues.
Immediately following the execution of the Egyptian firstborn and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, God gave Moses the command to sanctify the firstborn of Israel: “And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Sanctify unto Me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast, it is Mine.’” (Ex. 13:1-2). But then, just verses later, we read the most startling rejoinder:
“And all the firstborn of man among thy sons shalt thou redeem” (Ex. 13:13).
Rashbam et al. (Ex. 13:13) note that this refers to the Levite replacement of the firstborns, an event that would not occur until the second year following the exodus, as described in our parsha (Numbers 3). But why, if the firstborns will only lose their election years later, should God already mention the need to redeem them?! Is this not an undoing of the very command He just made to sanctify them in the service of God?
The answer is that the undoing of the firstborns is part and parcel of their election. God did not select the firstborn of Israel to replace the firstborn of Egypt. God did not destroy the hegemony that was Egypt to establish yet another hegemony. On the contrary, the goal of the redemption of Israel from Egypt was to bring about a new world order wherein man would be free to achieve his God given potential, unfettered by the shackles of idol worship or, in the case of Egypt, firstborn worship.
Tellingly, God explains His mission to Moses specifically in terms of “firstborns”: And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh: ‘Thus saith the Lord: Israel is My son, My firstborn. And I have said unto thee: Let My son go, that he may serve Me; and thou hast refused to let him go. Behold, I will slay thy son, thy firstborn’ (Exodus 4:22-23). And then, after nine plagues that demonstrated all aspects of divine power to an unbelieving world, the final plague, the plague that effectuated the redemption, was the plague specifically on the firstborns:
“And it came to pass at midnight, that the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne [i.e., Pharaoh himself – Rashi] unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle” (Exodus 12:29).
The plague of death upon the firstborn signaled a decisive end to the Egyptian world order based on idol worshiping tyranny wherein the “gods” were the firstborn, both of man and animal (see Rashi Ex. 11:5). Rabbi Riskin writes, “The slaying of the firstborn was a dramatic confirmation of the Divine desire for meritocracy” (Torah Lights, Exodus, p.82). This final plague on Egypt effectuated not only the redemption of Israel, but the redemption of the world; for the death of the firstborn in Egypt communicated the fundamental message that man must be free – free to serve the God who judges man by deed and not by birth rank.
In order to promulgate this message for posterity, God sanctified the firstborns of Israel to be His servants. The firstborns of Israel are to serve as symbol of the new world order that replaced the worship of the firstborns of Egypt. The firstborns of Israel are to serve as symbol of the new world order that recognizes not what one inherits but what one merits. But the message only acquires authenticity and the symbol, true depth, if the position is given to forfeiture. And so indeed, the same text that tells of the sanctification of the firstborns of Israel tells of their undoing, of their own need for redemption.
So fundamental is this message to the story of the exodus that the text, which treats of the sanctification and redemption of the firstborn, teaches:
“And it shall be when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying: What is this? that thou shalt say unto him: By strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage; and it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go that the Lord slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast; therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all that openeth the womb, being males; but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem” (Ex. 13:14-15).
This message, that man does not inherit greatness, but earns it in the service of God, as symbolized by the sanctification – and more importantly, redemption – of the firstborn, is what we are convey to our children for all time. Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah (Hizkuni on Ex. 13:14) explains that it is specifically this message that we are to transmit when we eat of the paschal lamb in our annual Passover commemoration of the exodus.
Referring back to our opening text wherein God takes the Levites in place of the firstborns, it should be clear by now that the election of the Levites, like that of the firstborns, was not made to perpetuate a patrimony of capricious overlords, but rather to form a group of dedicated servants. In this vein Rav Hirsch (Num. 3:7) writes, “the priest and the Levite stand [in the Temple] in the name of the nation … as representative of the nation.”
The priest and the Levite are representatives, role models, not to be feared but emulated. For while the service within the Temple is defined by birthright, Maimonides (Hilchot Shemita 13:13) explains that anyone whose spirit moves him to the service of God can so dedicate himself, and he is indeed sanctified in the holiest manner. Moreover, inherited status is really of no consequence in the face of merit earned, as the Mishna (Avot 4:13) teaches: the “crown” of a good name exceeds the “crown” of the priesthood.
In conclusion, the redemption of the firstborn stands as eternal symbol of the divine desire that every man be the master of his own destiny, a slave to no man but a servant only to God. And to serve God is really nothing more and nothing less than to humbly strive for the greatness that is man’s destiny.