Parashat Bo 5774 – Rights and Responsibilities of the Firstborn

וְכֹל בְּכוֹר אָדָם בְּבָנֶיךָ תִּפְדֶּה

The narrative of the Ten Plagues closes with the Death of the Egyptian Firstborn and the consequential dedication of all  firstborn Israelites, man or beast, to ‘א. All the firstborn male (Shemot  13:12) animals from Bnei Yisrael must be sacrificed or redeemed and all firstborn sons must be redeemed.This finale parallels and was predicted by the very opening of the story. When Moshe is on his way down to Egypt ‘א tells him to say to Paroah, “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.”[1] Then Moshe “encounters ‘א” and nearly dies, saved only by his wife circumcising their son, who then says, “Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me… A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.” (Shemot 4:22-26). This parallel creates a structure that not only creates a closed literary unit out of the story, but also perfectly lays out what is at stake.

From the very beginning of the story ‘א intended for the plague of the first born to occur. ‘א explains this as being a consequence of his oppressing and killing ‘א’s “firstborn.”[2] Everything that happens from that moment until the last plague is a function of this idea. Then after the plague of the first born the meaning of being ‘א’s firstborn is made clear when all of the Israelite firstborns becomes consecrated to ‘א and have specific rules. Bnei Yisrael’s special place as ‘א’s nation, with all of the rules and regulations that entails, is a function of being His firstborn. Moshe’s “encounter” with ‘א and the exclamation of “bridegroom of blood” parallel the story of the Pesach (12:1-13) on several counts. First is the idea of blood as the means of salvation. Moshe is saved by the blood of his son’s circumcision and Bnei Yisrael are saved by the blood of the Pesach that they placed on their doorposts. Second is the circumcision itself. While there is no circumcision depicted by occurrence of the Pesach in Egypt, it is listed as a requirement for those participating(12:47-48) and so the midrash therefore says that a circumcision actually was performed. And of course the basic fact of both stories is that of ‘א  killing someone. Thus the story opens the same way it closes,[3] while simultaneously demonstrating how serious the stakes are; life and death are at stake.[4]

This idea of Israel as ‘א’s firstborn can be a source of triumphant nationalism. The entire Exodus narrative can be thought of as ‘א taking care of his first born (Ibn Ezra on Shemot 4:22). ‘א takes care of His people and anyone who attacks them will suffer his wrath. This then leads into the National Theophany at Mount Sinai, for only His nation gets His Law. However, this thought process ignores[5] some of the more subtle, but incredibly important, implications of the phrase “Israel is My son, My firstborn.”

“Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians unto Me, O children of Israel? saith the LORD. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?” (Amos 9:7) ‘א is not god of Israel alone, and the proof for this is in the phrase “Israel is My son, My first-born.” The existence of a firstborn son by definition implies the existence of others. Thus while Bnei Yisrael is ‘א’s firstborn, and has a special relationship with Him based on that, the other nations are also His sons. One only need read the books of the prophets to see what the ideal for the relationship between the nations really is. “In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth; For that the LORD of hosts hath blessed him, saying: ‘Blessed be Egypt My people and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel Mine inheritance.” (Yeshayahu 19:24-25) ‘א is the god of all earth and all the nations are his children. The title of firstborn implies special favor and grace, but it also implies special responsibility.[6] “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the root of Jesse, that standeth for an ensign of the peoples, unto him shall the nations seek.” (Yeshayahu 11:10) “Thus saith the LORD of hosts: In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold, out of all the languages of the nations, shall even take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying: We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” (Zechariah 8:23) Bnei Yisrael are responsible for the raising up of the nations. Israel is meant to be the center of ‘א’s kingdom on this earth, when all peoples[7] will be united under ‘א. “Even them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon Mine altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Yeshayahu 56:7) “For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the LORD” (Zephaniah 3:9) That our relationship with ‘א is differentiated does not mean that it is exclusive, and treating like it as it if it were is an affront.

Moreover, the idea of a “firstborn” is one of the primary concepts of Sefer Beraishit, and it is not simple. The “firstborn” is rarely ever the actual firstborn. Avraham’s firstborn Yishmael is kicked out of the family. Esav, while beloved of his father, is destined from before his birth to be supplanted by his younger brother (Bereishit 25:23). This is the story of Bnei Yisrael and it is based upon the contingent status of the firstborn. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Yaakov’s children. Whole libraries could be filled with the literature that has been written on war for supremacy amongst his sons, specifically the three-way split between Reuven, Yosef, and Yehuda. Notably, Reuven lost the birthright not because it was taken from him but because sinned against his father (35:22). The contingency of Bnei Yisrael as “firstborn”, the contingency of ‘א’s added grace, is the theme of the first rashi on the Torah (Beraishit 1:1):

In the beginning: Said Rabbi Isaac: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from “This month is to you,” (Exod. 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded, (for the main purpose of the Torah is its commandments, and although several commandments are found in Genesis, e.g., circumcision and the prohibition of eating the thigh sinew, they could have been included together with the other commandments). Now for what reason did He commence with “In the beginning?” Because of [the verse] “The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations” (Ps. 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],” they will reply, “The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of the Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.[8]

This rashi is generally misunderstood to be about the unending right of Bnei Yisrael to the Land, but that is not it’s true meaning. The Land of Canaan was given to the Canaanites until such time as they no longer deserved it, and the same holds true of Bnei Yisrael. The gift of ‘א’s land is one Bnei Yisrael might easily lose, the same way the Canaanites did before them. While Bnei Yisrael will always be His chosen people, the grace they receive from Him is dependent on their actions.

Being part of ‘א’s nation has a tendency to make people feel superior. But being part of ‘א’s nation is both less and more than people think. It is less than people think in that it is not an exclusive claim. Bnei Yisrael is ‘א’s chosen nation, but all of the nations are His. It is more than people think because it is not just a right but also an obligation. “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities.” (Amos 3:2) It is the fact of being ‘א’s people that obligates, and not living up to that obligation has severe consequences (Vayikra 26, Devarim 28).

[1] Translations from www.mechone-mamre.org

[2] Note: This would also seem to be a fairly minimal consequence in terms of Paroah’s attempt to kill all the newborn Israelite males.

[3] Also note the connection between 4:21 and 11:9-10.

[4] This is one possible explanation for the juxtaposition of 4:21-23 and 4:24-26.

[5] See, however, Devarim 4:10-14, 19, and 20.

[6] In more practical terms, the reason firstborn son inherits more is to compensate for and to enable his responsibility to take care of the rest of the family.

[7] See also Seforno on Shemot 4:22

[8] http://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/8165#showrashi=true

Parashat Haye Sarah – A Stranger In A Strange Land

גֵּר-וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי

Parashat Haye Sarah tells the three stories that conclude Avraham’s section of Sefer Bereishit, consisting of his last two narratives and the story of his burial. The two final narratives of Avraham’s life, burying his wife and finding a wife for his son, would seem at first glance to be in tension. When buying a plot of land to bury Sarah, Avraham is very precise in following the local protocol and accepted norms of the Hittite community in the area, making his case to and before the public (Bereishit 23). Then, when he sends his servant to find a wife for Yitzhak, his instructions make it clear that he wants nothing to do with the locals, that a Canaanite woman would be completely unacceptable as a wife for Yitzhak. However, both stories are at the end of the day more complex than that, and both express a larger tension inherent in Avraham’s life, and throughout the history of Bnei Yisrael.

Bereishit 23 begins with Sarah’s death and ends with her burial. The verses in between are spent in a very detailed depiction of the process of Avraham buying a plot of land in which to bury Sarah. Avraham first goes to the Children of Het as a community and asks them to speak on his behalf. Only then does Avraham actually speak to Efron, and the whole thing takes place in the presence of the community. The whole thing strongly resembles ancient Near-Eastern contracts, down to the mention of the trees in verse 17[1]. The larger story reads very much like a story about Avraham joining the community. However, looking at the details of Avraham’s discussion with the Hittites gives a somewhat different impression. In verse four, Avraham asks the community if he can purchase “a burial plot” in which to bury Sarah, and they respond by offering him a grave, “from amongst the choicest of their graves.” In his response, Avraham asks the people to intercede with Efron on his behalf, and in doing so he again states that he is looking to purchase not a grave, but a burial plot. This repeated emphasis on buying a full piece of land in which to bury his wife, instead of just burying her among the dead of the Hittites, demonstrates a strong desire to remain separate and distinct. So while he is more than willing to follow the communal customs and protocols in buying the plot of land, the land purchase itself represents a certain degree of reluctance to actually join the community.

Bereishit 24 depicts the journey of Avraham’s servant to Haran to find a wife for Yitzhak. The servant’s journey is started by Avraham giving him detailed instructions, with the emphasis on the fact that the wife must not be from Canaan, going so far as to make him swear to this. “And I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you shalt not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell. But you shalt go to my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son, for Yitzhak” (24:3-4). This would seem to betray a strong desire to remain separate and apart from the Canaanites. But for all that, it is even more important that Yitzhak not be taken out of the land of Canaan. Despite the apparently undesirable nature of the Canaanite society, Avraham wants to make sure that his descendants remain in the midst of it. They came from a different land to a place where the society runs according to norms they could never accept[2]. They are supposed to come to the society as strangers, and then dwell there, despite the fact that it is strange to them.

The idea of being a stranger in a strange land is a trend for the next few generations of Israelite leadership. Yaakov spends 22 years growing and developing his family in the house of Lavan. Yosef is sold into slavery in Egypt where he becomes a leader of the entire society. Perhaps the ultimate manifestation of this is Moshe, who is raised in the Egyptian royal household, while  knowing that he is an Israelite (Shemot 2:8, 4:14), then he is exiled to Midian, where they identify him as an Egyptian (Shemot 2:19), and finally he returns to Egypt, to the house of Paroah, as the leader of soon-to-be liberated slaves. He is at all points in his life a stranger, as emphasized by the fact that he names his first son Gershom (גרשם), literally meaning “stranger there,” due to his having “been a stranger in a strange land” (Shemot 2:22). The only person whose sense of estrangement might be comparable is Rivkah. When she is taken from her family, from the land of her birth, she becomes a part of Avraham’s family, and must take up the family legacy of being part of a community they cannot fully accept. However, her estrangement starts much earlier. When the Torah introduces Rivkah, she is depicted as the very essence of altruistic dedication to the service of others. She spends hours filling up troughs full of water for the camels of a stranger who merely asked for a sip to drink (Bereishit 24:17-19). When he asks for a place to sleep, she offers him food for his camels as well (24:23-25). Her family, however, is only moved by the riches of the stranger (24:30-31), and seems to be totally self-serving, revealing that, growing up, Rivkah would have been a stranger in her own household. This would have made her perfect to marry Yitzhak, who was born in the Canaanite community, and thus would not possess the same degree of natural tension.

The question that then must be answered is, why is this tension important, or even at all desirable? The sensation of alienation Avraham and his family must have experienced living in Canaanite society must have been incredible, and not entirely pleasant. However, it has an important function. Avraham’s family was meant to be involved in the Canaanite society. Avraham helps fight a war (Bereishit 14) and he prays for the Sedom and the surrounding cities (Bereishit 18:16-33), despite their dubious moral character (Bereishit 13:13). Both Avraham and Yikzchak have repeated dealings with King Avimelekh of Gerar (Bereishit 20, 21:22-34). However, they are also a unique entity unto themselves, ‘א’s only covenantal partners in a land of people whose actions ‘א cannot tolerate (Bereishit 15:16). To remain unique is to be alienated. Losing this sense of alienation comes at the price of losing what makes one unique. This is all the more true in modern society, where we as jews are not in total opposition to society’s values. Much of modernity is incredibly valuable and important, and therefore it is that much harder to feel that we should be different, that we must remain separate. But if we as Jews do have something valuable to contribute to society, and we certainly do, letting go of that is a loss not just for us, but for society as a whole. While the pull of unity is great, it often comes at the price of the unique gifts of the individual, and in this it must be resisted. What we have to give is what makes us unique, and thus the way to stay unique is to truly believe in what we have to give. We must embrace what makes us different, not because we reject society, but because otherwise we would have cannot give to society. Embracing what makes us different not only makes us better, but betters society as well.

[1] Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis.

[2] The biblical picture of the Canaanites is one of absolute depravity, as per Bereishit 15:16, Vayikra 18:3, etc.

Parashat Shemini 5774 – “For your sake and for the Sake of the Nation”: The Tension Between Particularism and Universalism in the Inaugural Sacrifices

פרשת שמיני – בעדך ובעד העם

Parashat Shemini opens with the eight day of the inauguration of the Mishkan, the point where the service of the Mishkan, until that point performed by Moshe, began to be performed by Aharon and his sons. This begins a process that would continue until the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash, where the descendants of Aharon brought the korbanot of Bnei Yisrael before ‘א. However, that day was not merely the beginning of this process. Many of the services performed that day would not become part of the regular ritual of the Mishkan or Mikdash. An excellent example of this would be the two sin-offerings that Aharon and his sons bring.

In Vayikra 9:7 Aharon is told, “Come forward to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, making expiation for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the people’s offering and make expiation for them, as the LoRD has commanded.”[1] The phrase “for yourself and for the people” would seem to be odd. Is Aharon not part of the people? Why would he need a separate atonement? Even stranger, this is not the only time such a formulation is found. In Vayikra 16 Moshe describes the service of Yom HaKippurim, and we find the same basic formulation, of Aharon atoning for himself and the greater unit that he is a part of, four times (verses 6, 11, 17, & 24), with the last mimicking 9:7 almost exactly. “He shall bathe his body in water in the holy precinct and put on his vestments; then he shall come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, making expiation for himself and for the people.” Once again, the strangeness of the phrasing stands out. Is Aharon not a part of the people? Why isn’t their expiation enough?

The first step to understanding this separation is to appreciate its nature.  This isn’t just a matter of redundancy in speech, this is something that was effected in real life. The expiation of Aharon and the People occurs in two stages. Vayikra 9:8 says that “Aaron came forward to the altar and slaughtered his calf of sin offering.” Nothing in this verse, or the ensuing description of the offering process, says anything about the nature of this sin offering. Verse 15, in contrast, is quite clear: “Next he brought forward the people’s offering. He took the goat for the people’s sin offering, and slaughtered it, and presented it as a sin offering like the previous one.” The sin offering brought in verse 15 is that of the people, as opposed to the previous one. That one, therefore, must be a sin offering for Aharon himself. This answers the question of the sufficiency of the national expiation for the expiation of Aharon. Aharon is indeed part of the people and would have been covered by their offering. His offering comes before the national one, when he had still not received expiation.

The problem that remains is the question of why? Why does Aharon have to give a sin offering before that of the people can be given? Some hint of the answer lies in the nature of the occasions regarding which this “for himself and for the people” expression is found, the eight inaugural day of the Mishkan and Yom HaKippurim. Both of these days are about having a clean start for the beginning of a new process, about being spiritually fit to begin serving ‘א anew. This is something that occurs on both the individual and collective levels. However, an individual, as part of a unit, cannot focus on the whole  and the part simultaneously, and the question then would be which should be attended to first. The model of the Mishkan is clear, the individual must cleanse themselves first, before getting to work on the whole. However, it is also clear that Aharon’s expiation is meant to make him ready to being the sin offering of the people. The individual should make themselves ready first, but they should do so for the sake of better serving the whole. The Torah thus delineates a basic model that applies to all aspects of life. A person is always part of a people. A people is always part of the peoples of our world. And the first step to making it a better world is for all persons to be the best persons they can be, in order that all peoples will be the best peoples they can be, and our world will be the best that it can be.

[1] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.