The Five Rung Pole
There is a hierarchy to the things we love. At the bottom of the totem pole are the vane pursuits of life, such as power, money, success and prestige as well as the toys of life such as cars, houses, furniture and wardrobes. These things make a statement. They convince others of our importance.
Higher on the totem pole is love. Love for a friend, a family member, a parent or in the most passionate sense, a spouse. Love is not vane like the items on the first list. Love is affirming when we receive it and fulfilling when we give it. Houses and cars are just things. Power and prestige are tools that we use as a means to an end. Love is not a means, it is its own end.
But in a way even love is a tool, a tool that makes life worthwhile. Above love then, is survival. Survival is not a tool that helps us achieve something important nor is it about endowing life with meaning. Survival is life. Without life there is nothing. Without life there is no discussion of love or prestige. Survival is the beginning and end of the entire journey. It is the sum of all things.
Yet, there is the mother who gladly gives her life for the child she loves. This is not because she can’t live without meaning. It is not a rational conclusion at which she arrives after much consideration. It is a conviction in her innermost chamber, at her very core. Her child is more important to her than life.
Life is the sum of all things, but only to a point. It is the sum of all things that we accumulate or experience in life, but it is not the sum of the person, who is alive. Before we speak of life, there must be a person that lives. Life is more important than the things that fill it, but the person is more important than life itself. The mother surrenders her life because her child is her life. If her child dies, she too will disappear and all that will remain is an empty shell. That’s not a life she can live.
Then there is the mother, who watches her own children die and doesn’t lift a finger to stop it. What can justify that? What can overrule the love and attachment a mother feels toward a child?
The Midrash tells us of a woman by the name of Channah, who had seven sons. Each of them was brought before the Syrian Greek king, Antiochus, who ordered them to commit idolatry on pain of death. The mother stood by and encouraged each son to choose G-d over life. When her seventh son was executed, she climbed to the roof and proclaimed, Dear G-d, “Abraham only sacrificed one child whereas I have sacrificed seven,” and she plunged to her own death.
She couldn’t go on living without her children, but still she encouraged them to die. How could she do that? She could do it because though life is more important than things and children are more important than life, G-d is the essence of everything. A mother cannot live without her children, but a Jew cannot live without G-d. The children are the essence of their mother, but G-d is the essence of existence.
Reversal of Priorities
We have thus established a hierarchy. Without G-d there can be no existence. Without children, there can be no life (for a parent). Without life there can be no love and certainly no accumulation of things.
It makes sense that we sacrifice a career, prestige or a house for love. If our elderly parents need us to care for them, we give up our career to take care of them. It also makes sense to let down a friend, parent or even a spouse for survival. It is understood that we don’t attend a family wedding if our survival is at stake. We don’t attend to our spouse’s needs, even the most important ones, if our survival is at stake. It also makes sense to surrender our survival for the sake of our children. It even makes sense to give up our children for the sake of G-d and may we never be tested this way.
But what happens when our priorities are reversed? Suppose you refuse to attend your brother’s wedding because you have an important business meeting that day or because it is the closing date for your dream vacation home. Placing ourselves and our interests ahead of those we love is a perversion of the natural order. It raises the question of what we might do if our children were in need. Indeed, it raises the question, what might we do if our faith were ever challenged. Would we choose G-d over life?
Joseph and His Brothers
The Biblical episode of Joseph and his brothers serves as a lesson in this regard. Joseph provoked his brothers in many ways and they grew angry with him. They were out in the wilderness shepherding, when Joseph, a loyal if somewhat naïve soul, went to them. They abducted their brother and sold him to a group of merchants, who transferred Joseph to Egypt.
Joseph’s brothers were holy men, who didn’t sell Joseph out of spite. They sincerely believed that Joseph was guilty of a crime that warranted this punishment. Furthermore, as they later discovered, selling Joseph was part of a Divine plan to bring the Jewish people to Egypt. Yet, selling a brother is a sin and we, their descendants must atone for their sin.
The Torah informs us that our first born sons belong to G-d and we can redeem our son by giving five silver coins to the priest. But first we have to make a statement. The priest asks us what we prefer, the money or our son, and we reply that we prefer the son. Why does the priest have to ask this ridiculous question?
The Talmudic sages taught that redemption of the first born atones for the sale of Joseph, who was his mother’s firstborn. Selling a sibling into slavery demonstrates a perversion of priorities. It places the desire for money, revenge or what have you, ahead of love for family. Indeed, it raises the question, for what price might this person be willing to sell his or her child? In fact, for what price might this person be willing to sell out G-d? In other words, once we establish that the least of our values is for sale, all of our values are negotiable. All that remains to be determined is the price.
The atonement for this sin begins with the restitution of our priorities. The priest asks the father, what is more important to you, your children or your money? By proclaiming that our children come first we restore our priorities and atone for the sale of Joseph.
Point of Reflection
The astute reader will ask why we need to atone for a sin we did not commit, but the astute reader will also acknowledge that we are indeed often guilty of similar sins. We might not easily sell our sibling and certainly not our son for monetary gain, but our sins might be even worse. We might be willing to pass up on G-d for materialistic gain. We might pass up on morning prayers to get to the office a little early. We might refuse to donate significant funds to charity because we need the money for a particular luxury. It raises the question of our priorities.
The Mitzvah of redeeming the first born reminds us that we belong to G-d. Indeed, the priest asks us whether we prefer the child over the money and every rational person will choose the child. But before the priest even asks a question the ritual reminds us of an even more fundamental point. Life does not belong to us nor does not revolve around our pleasure. Life begins with G-d. In fact, before we are even born, we already belong to G-d. As such everything we own must be devoted to that cause and everything we do must point in that direction.
If this Mitzvah opens our mind to this truth, it has accomplished its goal. Well before the priest asks the question and well before we formulate our response, this Mitzvah causes us to reflect on the purpose and root cause of life, a contemplation that crystallizes our connection with G-d.