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Parenting from the chag – Chag Pesach – The role of the bechor

Author’s Note: As we mentioned last year, the Chag of Pesach is unique in its focus on the parent-child relationship, and the commandment to pass down our story to the next generation. It is no coincidence, therefore, that numerous lessons regarding parenting and Chinuch in general emerge from both the Pesach story and the Seder night. We will therefore spend the next two weeks highlighting a couple of these messages.

The story of the Exodus is so powerful and grand, that certain details of the story tend to get overlooked. We spend so much time focusing on the “big picture”, that we fail to pay attention to specific aspects or themes that course throughout the narrative.

One such theme in the Pesach story is that of the “bechor”, the firstborn. We might not realize it at first glance, but there appears to be a pre-occupation with the concept of the “bechor” throughout the story. Early on in the narrative, even before the Makkot begin, Hashem commands Moshe to declare to Pharaoh `Bni bechori Yisrael, “My firstborn is Israel,” as a justification for His demand that Pharoah set the nation free. In addition, Hashem then warns Pharaoh that if he doesn’t set Bnei Yisrael free, HaShem will kill Pharaoh’s first-born son. And in fact, as we all know, the last and most severe of the plagues was the smiting of all the firstborns in Egypt; ultimately serving as the impetus for Pharaoh’s freeing of the Am Yisrael.

And, the firstborn theme does not end there. Interspersed within the Exodus story is the commandment to redeem every human firstborn, and to sacrifice every animal firstborn. The reason for this, as explained by the Torah in Shemot 13:1, is that on the eve of the Makkat Bechorot, Hashem “acquired” all Jewish firstborns. Rashi explains that at the moment that Hashem killed all the Egyptian and spared the Jewish firstborns, He acquired all bechorot as His own, therefore requiring them to be redeemed or offered as a sacrifice. Finally, the very name of our Chag, Pesach, comes from the fact that Hashem “passed over” the Israelite homes and only killed the Egyptian firstborns.

(As an aside, its fascinating to note that the theme of bechora and firstborns doesn’t start in Sefer Shemot. A brief survey of the stories in Sefer Bereishit also reveals the issue of the bechora, and which child is destined to play the role of the bechor, to be an issue that is featured prominently. From the battle between Yishmael and Yitzchak as Avraham’s sons, to the more obvious battle between Yaacov and Eisav over being the bechor, to the story of Yaacov’s 12 sons, and the clash over who would act as Yaacov’s bechor- Reuvein [the real firstborn], Yosef [the bechor of Rachel, his preferred wife], or perhaps even Yehuda?)

So the theme of the firstborn features prominently throughout the Exodus story, in extremely profound ways. The question is- why? What exactly does Hashem mean when he refers to us as His firstborn, as opposed to simply calling us His children? Why does Hashem choose to ultimately punish the Egyptians through their firstborns, with that event being central to the name of Pesach- and what is the significance of the multiple additional commandments connected to Jewish firstborns?

Rabbi David Fohrman, in his amazing book The Exodus You Almost Passed Over, discusses this question in detail, and notes that, apparently, “the firstborn theme is the fabric out which this story is woven. To know the Exodus is to know firstbornness…the [Exodus] story is about what it means to be a firstborn nation.”

How so? What exactly does it mean to be the firstborn of Hashem?

Rabbi Fohrman answers this question by first exploring the role of a firstborn in the nuclear family. He notes that every family deals with the challenge of a generation gap. As parents try to pass down their values and principles to their kids, they are faced the challenge that their children are growing up in a world very different than the one they grew up in. Even when kids desire to emulate their parents, they may struggle to do so in the drastically different world that they live in.

This, suggests Rabbi Forhman, is where the bechor steps in. “A bechor- an actual firstborn, or any child, really, who adopts this role- can serve as a bridge between the generations. A bechor can take the values of the parents and live them, tangibly, in a child’s world. When a child-leader does that successfully, he or she takes a noble idea and breathes life into it, transforming that ideal into behavior that makes sense in a child’s world. That kind of behavior then becomes a real, living possibility for the other children, too.”

If this is the crucial role that the bechor plays in the classic family, we can now understand the role that Bnei Yisrael can play as Hashem’s bechor as well. The gap between G-d and human is much greater than the gap between parents and children- so how is that gap overcome?

That, of course, is where Bnei Yisrael come in. The very first time that Moshe appears to Pharaoh, G-d commands him to declare that the Jews are His bechor, and therefore Hashem needs them to be released to serve Him. Am Yisrael’s role is to take G-d’s divine values, and transform them into human action in this world. We are meant to build a society based on Torah values, and, through that society, serve as a living example to the G-d’s other children, i.e. the other nations of the world- to be a “light unto the nations.”

The evening of Makkat Bechorot, Am Yisrael displayed their desire to be G-d’s bechor by brazenly taking the god of the Egyptians and slaughtering it before them. In doing so, they declared their allegiance to Hashem, making them worthy of becoming His firstborn- and thereby worthy of being spared from Makkat Bechorot.

We can now understand as well why G-d chose the name Pesach, or Passover- because such a name represents not only our history, but also our destiny. It “embodies Israel’s response to the events that gifted her national existence. The nation would exist, now and henceforth, in service of the larger family- the greatest family there ever was. They would exist to nurture the bond between Parent and children in the great Divine family comprising G-d and humanity, or as a later verse puts it, to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Rabbi Fohrman then adds one more important point- namely that the value of the bechor is only meaningful when he realizes and understands his role to be one of selflessness and purpose- he is there to help bridge the gap between the parents and the other children. If, however, the bechor instead focuses on his unique relationship with the parents, and, based on that relationship, believes himself to be better or superior, then he has failed in his mission. So, too, “the mission of Israel only makes sense because G-d is intensely interested in a relationship with all of humanity, and it is up to Israel never to betray its mission by losing sight of that.”

As we approach the Chag of Pesach, there a number of messages that emerge from this discussion for us to ponder within the context of our family lives. As we look to pass on our tradition to our kids, we must consider the inherent challenge created by the generational gap, and think creatively about how we can best overcome that. We should consider the role that our very own bechor/bechora plays within this dynamic, and whether we help facilitate or hurt his/her ability to bridge that gap. And of course, we must be sure to help the next generation understand our communal role as G-d’s bechor, helping to bridge the gap between Him and the rest of the world.

Wishing everyone a Chag Kasher V’Sameach!

About the Author
Rav Yossi Goldin is a teacher and administrator who teaches in a number of seminaries and Yeshivot across Israel. He currently lives in Shaalvim with his wife and family. He can be reached at yossigoldin@gmail.com.
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