April 14, 2024
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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 much time focusing on the “big picture” and fail to pay attention to specific themes that course throughout the narrative.

One such theme in the Pesach story is that of the “bechor,” the firstborn. There appears to be a preoccupation with the concept of the “bechor” throughout the story. Early on, even before the Makkot begin, Hashem commands Moshe to declare to Pharaoh “My firstborn is Israel,” as a justification for His demand to set them free. Hashem then warns Pharaoh that if he doesn’t set Bnei Yisrael free He will kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son—a threat that ultimately comes true in Makkat Bechorot.

And the firstborn theme doesn’t end there. Interspersed within the Exodus story is the commandment to redeem every human firstborn and to sacrifice every animal firstborn. The Torah notes that this is because Hashem “acquired” all Israelite firstborns. Rashi explains that when Hashem killed all the Egyptian and spared the Israelite firstborns, He acquired all bechorot as His own, thereby requiring them to be redeemed or sacrificed to Him. Additionally, the very name “Pesach” highlights that Hashem “passed over” the Israelite homes and only killed the Egyptian firstborns.

So the firstborn theme features prominently throughout the Exodus story. But why? What does Hashem mean when he refers to us as His firstborn? Why does Hashem choose to punish the Egyptians through their firstborns, and what is the significance of the additional commandments connected to Jewish firstborns?

Rabbi David Fohrman, in his amazing book “The Exodus You Almost Passed Over,” discusses this question in detail. He suggests that “the firstborn theme is the fabric out of 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?

Rabbi Fohrman answers this by first exploring the role of a firstborn within the nuclear family. He notes that every family deals with the challenge of a generation gap. As parents try to pass down their values to their kids, they’re faced with the challenge that their children are growing up in a world very different from the one they grew up in. Even when kids desire to emulate their parents, they struggle to do so in the drastically different world 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. The gap between God and humans is much greater than parents to children. So how is that gap overcome?

That is the job of Bnei Yisrael. The first time that Moshe appears to Pharaoh, God commands him to declare that the Jews are His bechor and therefore He needs them to be released to serve Him. Am Yisrael’s role is to take God’s divine values and transform them into human action in this world. We are meant to build a society based on Torah values and thereby serve as a living example to God’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 God’s bechor by brazenly taking the Egyptian god and slaughtering it. In doing so they declared their allegiance to Hashem, making them worthy of becoming His firstborn—and thereby worthy of being saved from Makkat Bechorot.

This is why God chose the name Pesach, or Passover—because it 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 God and humanity, or as a later verse puts it, to be ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’”

As we approach the chag of Pesach, a number of messages 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 to 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 God’s bechor, helping to bridge the gap between Him and the rest of the world.

Wishing everyone a chag sameach!


Rav Yossi Goldin is the menahel tichon at Yeshivas Pe’er HaTorah, rebbe at Midreshet Tehilla, and placement adviser/internship coordinator for the YU/RIETS Kollel. He lives with his family in Shaalvim and can be reached at [email protected].

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