April 22, 2024
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Zera Shimshon on Bamidbar

  קַח אֶת הַלְוִיִּם תַּחַת כָּל בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת בֶּהֱמַת הַלְוִיִּם תַּחַת בְּהֶמְתָּם וְהָיוּ לִי הַלְוִיִּם אֲנִי ה’: (במדבר ג:מה)

It is written in sefer Bamidbar (3:45): “Take the Levi’im in place of every firstborn of Bnei Yisroel … ” The Midrash Rabbah (Bamidbar Rabbah 4:6) asks: Why did Hashem command to redeem the holiness of the firstborn Jewish boys by substituting the Levi’im in their place? The midrash answers: in the earlier generations of the world, the firstborn was the one who offered sacrifices to Hashem. Adam Harishon offered sacrifices since he was the firstborn of the world and he even wore the special clothing of the Kohanim.

From this midrash, we learn that from the very beginning of mankind, the firstborn had a special holiness.

Zera Shimshon asks: But there actually seems to be a pasuk that contradicts this?

In parshas Behaaloscha (Bamidbar 8:17) it is written: “For every firstborn of Bnei Yisroel, man as well as animal, is Mine; I sanctified them to Myself on the day that I struck every firstborn in the land of Mitzrayim.” This pasuk implies that firstborns were sanctified in Mitzrayim 2468 years after the creation of the world, at the time when Hashem killed the Egyptian firstborns when Bnei Yisroel were leaving Mitzrayim. The question is: When did the firstborns become holy; at the beginning of creation or when Bnei Yisroel left Mitzrayim?

Zera Shimshon answers this question by first asking and answering another question: In the beginning of parshas Shemos, Hashem told Moshe, return to Mitzrayim and tell Pharaoh to send Bnei Yisroel out of Mitzrayim. Hashem told Moshe (Shemos 4:22), “You should tell Pharaoh, ‘So said Hashem, binee bechori Yisroel, My firstborn son is the nation of Yisrael.’”

The midrash (Shemos Rabbah 15:27) explains that these were not the only words Moshe said to Pharaoh at that time, Moshe elaborated and said to Pharaoh, “Don’t you know how much I love the firstborn, as it is written (Devarim 15:19), ‘… you shall not work with the firstborn of your ox nor shall you shear the firstborn of your flock. In other words, Moshe tried to convince Pharaoh to free Bnei Yisroel because Bnei Yisroel are like Hashem’s firstborn and firstborns are very dear to Hashem.

There seems to be another midrash that contradicts this. The midrash in Bereishis explains that the reason Eisav was born before Yaakov was in order for Eisav to absorb all the impurities of Rivka, so Yaakov would be born pure! Rav Avohu explains this can be compared to a bathhouse keeper who first cleans the bathhouse and only after the bath house is clean, does he wash the king’s son. In other words, not only is the firstborn inferior to his siblings, but he is the one that causes their superiority, by cleansing his mother for the subsequent children to be free of impurities. This being so—asks Zera Shimshon—why didn’t Pharaoh counter argue with Moshe and tell him that the fact that Bnei Yisroel are considered to be Hashem’s firstborn is a reason for him to enslave them and not a reason to free them!

Zera Shimshon answers that Hakodosh Boruch Hu’s original plan was for the firstborn to be superior and holier than his siblings. However, when Chava sinned and ate from the fruit of the eitz hadaas (tree of wisdom) in Gan Eden, she put many impurities into herself. At that time, the firstborn lost their special status because, from now on, they would absorb these impurities from their mother. From that time on, which was everyone born after Adam Harishon, there was actually no difference between the firstborn and a subsequent child born.

Things changed after the enslavement and affliction in Mitzrayim. The commentators explain that the pain and suffering Bnei Yisroel experienced was the beginning of a cleansing process to rid mankind of the “poison” which had entered Chava’s body when she ate from the eitz hadaas. The total purification process began with the suffering of Bnei Yisroel in Mitzrayim, the process was completed when we received the Torah at Har Sinai.

When Moshe told Pharaoh, “Binee bechori Yisroel, My firstborn son is the nation of Yisrael,” he explained to Pharaoh that from now on—since Bnei Yisroel had begun to be purified—it is now a virtue to be the firstborn, like it was at the very beginning of creation.

This also explains the pasuk in Behaaloscha that attributes the holiness of the firstborns to the time when Hashem killed the Egyptian firstborns and saved Bnei Yisroel’s firstborn. True, in the beginning of creation the firstborns were holy but the holiness was lost when Chava ate from the eitz hadaas, this holiness returned to the firstborn when Hashem saved the firstborn of Bnei Yisroel on the night they left Mitzrayim! This special status of theirs didn’t last too long, however, and was lost again to the Levi’im at the time the Mishkan was built.

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