120/929 First Born, Second Fiddle. Bamidbar 3

If the first-born had an advocacy organization, its first job would be to get some changes made in Bamidbar, chapter 3. The Torah explains what makes the first-born special; but it never explains why this special status, and the privilege of service that should come with it, is taken from them and transferred to the Levites.

Reviewing the last 120 chapters of the Torah actually reveals a consistent pattern of discrimination against the very children who by all rights have won the birth order lottery. Kayin, Yishmael, Esav, Reuven, Aharon- the first born is doomed by the Torah to play second fiddle. The Torah’s favoritism for the unfavored is chronic, and demands an explanation.

Perhaps that explanation is hinted at by our chapter’s opening, strangely, with the mention of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. All of the explanations offered for their sin essentially can be boiled down to one thing. In Hebrew, it’s the attitude of”magi’a li”, a sense of entitlement which develops quite easily specifically among the first born. This attitude is anathema to religious worship, capable of corrupting a loyal civil servant with the power that his office brings.

Replacing the first born are the tribe of Levi- the quintessential middle child. Follow the pesukim in this chapter carefully, and you’ll notice just how sandwiched they are. In one verse, they belong to God, in the next, to the Kohanim, in the third, to the people. Perhaps their obligations to multiple masters are meant to hold their sense of entitlement, ego and power in check for. After all, although according to the classic understanding, the tribe was chosen based on merit, because of their decisions during the sin of the golden calf, once they have become the chosen tribe, the problem of biologically determined privilege, and hence, of ‘magi’a li’, returns.

The Torah’s replacement of the first born with the Levites hasn’t completely solved the problem, but it has charted the course, a path which leads the sages to later say that a sage, even of problematic lineage, takes precendence over a priest, and that leads the Rambam, much later, to radically suggest that some aspects of being a Levi can be not only inherited by birth, but freely chosen.

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This is a daily blog of reflections on the 929 chapter of the day (more or less). I’d love to hear your comments!

About the Author
Avidan Freedman is the rabbi of the Shalom Hartman Institute's Hevruta program, an educator Hartman Boys High School in Jerusalem, and an activist against Israeli weapons sales to human rights violators.
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