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 Va’Et’hanan – The Dual Aspects of Idolatry

אֲשֶׁר חָלַק יְ׳הוָה אֱ׳לֹהֶיךָ אֹתָם לְכֹל הָעַמִּים

 

Parashat VaEt’hanan finishes Moshe’s first great speech of Sefer Devarim and begins his second. In the course of this ending and beginning the Revelation at Sinai is brought up three times, each in order to convey a specific message. The first appears in Devarim 4:9-13, and would seem at first to be simply an explanation of why Idolatry is forbidden, as expounded in verses 14-24. Verse 11 makes it clear that the Revelation at Sinai was not a visual experience, “And the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the voice of words, but you saw no form; only a voice,” and then the subsequent section goes through all the forms found in Heaven and on Earth, which by definition of being visible, could not represent ‘א. However, one verse in particular is striking. After rejecting the animals and the birds and the bugs, the Torah rejects the possibility of making idols in the images of the cosmos.

And lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and you see the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the host of heaven, and you are drawn away and worship them, and serve them, which the Lord your god has allotted to all the nations under the whole heaven. (4:19)

The verse seems bizarre, to say the least, but a deeper look at the verse not only teaches us much about the importance of the Revelation at Sinai, but also a great deal about the nature of the prohibition regarding Idolatry[1].

This verse was explained in a variety of ways by the rishonim. Several suggested[2], based on the gemara, that “the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the host of heaven” were allotted to the nations in order to provide them with light. This fits with the end of the verse which describes the nations as “under the whole heaven,” which is the area where the light of the stars falls. However, this fails to make sense in context in two ways. Firstly, the larger section is discussing Idolatry, not the providing of light, and second, Israel also receives light from the heavenly bodies, and while this can be fit with the phrase “ all the nations under the whole heaven,” the verse seems to be making a contrast between the nations and Israel, not lumping them together. A second idea is found in the comments of Ibn Ezra and Ramban, who state that all the nations are subject to management by the constellations, in contrast to Bnei Yisrael who are directly managed by ‘א. While not quite as out of context as the first idea, this still fails to fit into the discussion of Idolatry. Sensing the importance of the context, Rashi suggests that this verse is saying that while ‘א will stop the Israelites from worshiping “the host of heaven,” He will not stop the nations of the world from doing so, despite the fact that such actions are a transgression. This fits almost perfectly with the verse. However, the verse itself lacks the implication that the nations are “allowed but not intended” to worship the stars. Rather, as suggested by Rashbam, this verse seems to be stating that the nations are in fact allowed to worship the stars.

This pasuk, then, provides a fascinating model for Idolatry, wherein while it is forbidden for the Nation of Israel, it is permitted for the nations of the world. This is in fact stated explicitly in Shemot Rabbah 15:23[3], which says, “The Holy One, blessed it he, said: I did not warn the idolaters (lit: “star-worshippers”) against idolatry (lit: “worshipping the stars”), [I warned] only you, as it says, ‘do not make for you idols’ (Vayikra 26:1).” The midrash is pretty clear that idolatry is only a problem for Bnei Yisrael. However, this is problematic in terms of the fact that other sources would seem to indicate that the nations of the world are also forbidden to worship idols. Only a few chapters after our verse, the Torah instructs Bnei Yisrael to destroy the objects of idolatry that they find in the Land of Israel (7:5). One of the purposes of the plagues in Egypt was to teach the Egyptians that only ‘א is God[4]. Moreover, the gemara says that there are seven laws incumbent on all descendants of Noah[5], and that the prohibition against Idolatry is amongst them[6]. One method to resolve this difficulty could be saying that the verse says one thing but in practice we don’t follow it[7]. However, instead of simply choosing to reject one source in favor of the other, it is possible to create a synthesis of the two contradictory ideas.

The discussion of Idolatry in the 4th chapter of Devarim is put specifically in context of the fact that ‘א took Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt (4:20) and made a covenant with them at Sinai (4:23). They are forbidden to worship idols, b/c those idols could not possibly represent ‘א, who took them out of Egypt in order to be their god (Bamidbar 15:41), and who is a jealous god (Devarim 4:24). The covenant at Sinai is the concretization of a relationship between ‘א and Israel that was started at the Exodus, and Idolatry violates this relationship. Since the nations of the world, on the other hand, do not possess this special relationship[8], this cannot prohibit them from performing Idolatry. However, Idolatry may be forbidden for other reasons. The most obvious reason is that it is false, but it may also be forbidden due to the fact that it not only involves immoral practices, it also encourages a very self-serving mindset[9]. From this perspective Idolatry would be forbidden for all people, not just Bnei Yisrael. It is possible to view these not as two contradictory ideas, but as two aspects of the larger prohibition of Idolatry, a view which has the benefit of enabling us to understand some approaches to Idolatry that have been taken throughout history.

Throughout history, Bnei Yisrael have encountered other nations, requiring a delicate balance of pushing away idolaters, and living in society. This has resulted in unique statements attempting to demonstrate that a certain religion isn’t really Idolatry. The most famous instance of this in the encounter with Christianity. Perhaps the strangest answer to the question of whether or not Christianity is Idolatry is, “It is not Idolatry for them, but it is for us.” This approach essentially says that the Trinity is the splitting of ‘א’s power to multiple entities, known in Hebrew as “שיתוף,” meaning “partnership,” and that this is only considered Idolatry for jews, but not for the nations of the world[10]. While at first it seems odd that one idea could be both idolatrous and non-idolatrous, it makes perfect sense in light of our 2-aspect paradigm of Idolatry. From the perspective of the relationship between ‘א and the Nation of Israel, introducing a second or third divine entity into that relationship would certainly not be ok, but since the nations of the world do not have that relationship it would be fine. Similarly, the Meiri held that Christianity is not Idolatry because he believed that Idolatry is essentially a moral issue, not a theological one[11]. He said that basic issue with Idolatry is that idolatrous societies are barbaric and uncivilized, and thus any religion that creates a moral society instead of encouraging immorality would not be considered Idolatry[12]. While this certainly applies to Christianity, no one would suggest that a Jew could then go and join Christian worship. Once again, this makes perfect sense in light of the two differing aspects of Idolatry as we have outline them.

Judaism never believed that all peoples should be walking the same path. This can be readily seen from the fact that it was never a missionary religion, in fact going so far as to discourage strangers from converting. Not only do the nations of the world not have to follow in the path of Judaism, the Torah even allows them their own religions. In fact some thinkers have even suggested that all religions have something unique to offer the world[13. Not only should Bnei Yisrael not be denigrating other religions for not being “the true path,” Rav Kook even suggests that it is Judaism’s job to bring out the best in all the other religions[14]. Bnei Yisrael are meant to be a “Kingdom of Priests” (Shemot 19:6), and just as the special access of the Kohanim to the Mikdash was only for the purpose of enabling the relationship of ‘א and the people, so too the Nation of Israel’s special relationship with ‘א brings with it the responsibility to value and uplift the Nations of the World.

[1] I am indebted for many of the sources in this essay to Marc Shapiro’s essay, “Of Books and Bans.”

[2] See Rav Saadiah Gaon, Rashi, Rashbam ad loc. However, Rashi and Rashbam seem unsatisfied with this answer, as they each then offer alternatives.

[3] The Hebrew text of the midrash can be found here.

[4] Rav Yoel Bin Nun, of Yeshivat Har Etzion, has an approach to the Exodus narrative wherein the entirety of it is about the negation of Egypt’s gods, to the point that any appearance of the word “רע,” normally translated as evil, is instead considered a reference to the major Egyptian sun-god, Ra.

[5] However, Masekhet Baba Kama 38a and Vayikra Rabbah 13:2 both state that ‘א repealed the Seven Noahide Laws from upon the nations.

[6] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Sanhedrin, 56a.

[7] This is in fact the general approach taken by Rashbam and the GRA, which originates in Masekhet Sotah, 16a.

[8] While Amos 9:7 states that other nations may have a relationship with ‘א like that of the Exodus, they still lack the covenant of Sinai.

[9] See the beginning of Rambam’s Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim, where he argues that idol worship is purely a function of what a person can get back from the god, a sort of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” arrangement.

[10] ( פתחי תשובה, יורה דעה, קמז ג (ב

[11] Moshe Halbertal, “Bein Torah le-Hokhmah: Rabbi Menahem ha-Meiri u-Va`alei ha-Halakhah ha-Maimonim be-Provence” (Jerusalem, 2000), ch. 3.

[12] Beit HaBehira, Masekhet Avodah Zarah, p. 39.

[13] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “The Dignity of Difference,” Chapter 3. Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Orot, Orot Yisrael, 5:2.

[14]  Op cit.