A day after the birth of my number one son, my visiting mother sighed. Sitting in the close quarters of my Jerusalem hospital room — built for two, but inhabited by three — she peered into the plastic aquarium holding her sleeping new grandson.
“Ah,” she said, contentedly, “there’s nothing like a first child.”
I am the third of her four children. But far from taking offense, I knew what she meant.
A month after Yair’s birth, we “redeemed” him for a symbolic exchange of five coins with my husband’s Cohen work colleague. As opposed to the brit mila he had undergone at 8 days, this quaint ritual wasn’t fraught with physical concern.
But while eating stuffed grape leaves and making jokes about living long and prospering after the brief Vulcan-like ceremony, I wondered, why should our God accept such a cheap exchange?
This week that pink-faced babe is a bar mitzvah. This week I mark 13 years of loving as a mother — and as the recipient of the love of a child.
It’s clear that physical manhood is still on the horizon with every voice crack, as he endlessly practices his Torah reading. But in the eyes of Jewish law, my boychik is now a manchik, responsible for his own sins.
With this in mind, this week’s Torah reading, parashat Bo, is strangely resonant for a bar mitzvah.
The Torah portion begins with high drama — the final three plagues. The campaign to free the Hebrews from Egypt culminates in the death of the Egyptians’ firstborn — man and animals. It is only after this startlingly merciless crashing crescendo that the Jews are released from Egypt and set free.
Of note, the final plague is called in Hebrew, “Makat HaBechorot,” in which “bechor,” a term generally expressing “first” (found in other variations as “first fruits”) is used for firstborn.
In most Western cultures, a firstborn is afforded special status. He is the inheritor, the decision-maker. The one responsible for the family line and its traditions. For continuity.
Striking all firstborns down is a staggering blow.
Fresh from the final plague, God addresses Moshe and tells him that His dealings with firstborns are not done: “Consecrate to Me every firstborn; man and beast, the first issue of every womb among the Israelites is Mine.” (Exodus 13:2)
Curiously, the language used for the firstborn is different from that used during the plagues. We find the term “petter rechem” for the first time in the entire Torah, used here as literally the “opener of the womb.”
However, this demarcation in language between “bechor” to “petter rechem” goes beyond poetic sensibilities.
We see it is not only the Egyptians’ firstborn who are labeled with the “bechor” classification from a passage earlier in the Book of Exodus. In Exodus chapter 4, as Moshe travels towards Egypt from Midian, God coaches Moshe in how to convince his hard-hearted adversary. “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is My firstborn son.'”
Some explain this to mean that as the People of Israel were the first to believe in God, we are pioneers and therefore worthy of being called “firstborn.”
If the People of Israel are all firstborns (using the language of “bechor”), are we all susceptible to collective punishment like those slaughtered in Egypt? Should we live in fear of God’s anger? Could the hand of God one day smite our children, too?
Likewise, the Bible is rife with stories of individuals who are, by birth order, the firstborn, but by deed, are bereft of the birthright.
Being a firstborn seems like a step away from peril, frankly.
In the final section of this week’s reading, God explains that every firstborn from cattle, donkeys, and finally humans (using the “bechor” term) — must be redeemed. Here we’re told that when Israelite firstborns come to ask their parents why they must be redeemed, God instructs us to say, “It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.” And add that when in Egypt, God was forced to kill every firstborn (“bechor”), man and beast.
“Therefore, sacrifice to the Lord every first male issue of the womb (“petter rechem”), but redeem every firstborn (“bechor”) among my sons.” (Exodus 13:15)
The word “petter,” the first half of the term “petter rechem” gives us some insight into the nature of the “blessing” of being God’s firstborn. An unusual term, according to the Ben Yehuda dictionary, it connotes “opening, hatching, blazing a trail.”
Ben Yehuda and other dictionaries add a secondary meaning to the word “petter”: “to set free, to allow to leave,” such as use of the root in a statement the father of a bar mitzvah makes to transfer the culpability for the son’s sin to the now grown child.
The word “rechem” gives us some further clues: In Hebrew, the root is used in varied ways — as womb, as woman, as compassion. In Aramaic, Hebrew’s sister language, it is used for love.
Two of the four Torah passages inside phylactery boxes Jews are meant to wrap around their hands and heads every day include verses with the term “petter rechem.” The other two directly implore a worshipper to love God with all his heart, soul and might.
Wrapping tefillin is, therefore, being wrapping in a physical reminder of His mercy — and our responsibility as free firstborns of God to choose his love.
Through God’s compassion and love, the People of Israel were freed from Egypt. But is it possible that in labeling the no longer enslaved Israelites as “petter rechem,” He is emphasizing our freedom to love, to be compassionate — and to responsibly accept God’s love as well?
The floodgates of my motherly love were viscerally opened at the birth of Yair, my “petter rechem.” And through him, and his brothers and sisters after him, I see there are still miracles in this world. Compassion and mercy are real, and in our hands.
Now Yair is a bar mitzvah. Today, we free him to continue to be a pioneer and find his way, on his own terms, to responsibly give and receive love and compassion as well.