June 14, 2024
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Zera Shimshon on Parshas Bamidbar

קַח אֶת הַלְוִיִּם תַּחַת כָּל בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת בֶּהֱמַת הַלְוִיִּם תַּחַת בְּהֶמְתָּם וְהָיוּ לִי הַלְוִיִּם אֲנִי יְדֹוָד: במדבר ג׳ מה

כִּי לִי כָל בְּכוֹר בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָדָם וּבַבְּהֵמָה בְּיוֹם הַכֹּתִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּי אֹתָם לִי: פרשת בהעלותך

In the later part of the parsha, it is mentioned that Hashem commanded Moshe to count the firstborns and subsequently redeem them. The fact that they must be redeemed implies that they held a certain level of kedusha. The Midrash Rabah (Bamidbar Rabah 4, 6) asks, what is the nature of this unique kedusha? The midrash answers that from the very beginning of creation until the establishment of the mishkan, the firstborn always held an inherent holiness. Adam, as the firstborn of the world, not only offered sacrifices but also wore the special garments of the kohanim. This sacred duty was then passed down from Adam to Shais, from Shais to Misushelach, from Misushelach to Noach, and finally from Noach to Shem.

Zera Shimshon then asks about a pasuk that seems to contradict this.

In Parshas Beha’aloscha (Bamidbar 8, 17) it is written, “For every firstborn of Bnei Yisrael, 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 2,468 years after the creation of the world, at the time when Hashem killed the Egyptian firstborns and Bnei Yisrael were on their way out of Mitzrayim. This raises the question: When did the firstborns become holy? Was it from the very beginning of Creation or only when Bnei Yisrael departed from Mitzrayim?

In light of another Midrash, Zera Shimshon offers a very interesting explanation.

In the beginning of Parshas Shemos, Hashem told Moshe, return to Mitzrayim and tell Pharaoh to send Bnei Yisrael out of Mitzrayim. Hashem told Moshe (Shemos 4, 22), “You should tell Pharaoh, ‘So said Hashem, b’nee bechori Yisrael, My firstborn son is the nation of Israel.”

The Midrash (Shemos Rabah 15, 27) explains that Moshe didn’t only mention that Bnei Yisrael were Hashem’s firstborn, but he also told Pharaoh that Hashem loves the firstborn, like we find that one must not do work with firstborn oxen and sheep or shear their fleece. Moshe’s intent was to convince Pharaoh to free Bnei Yisrael since firstborns are very dear to Hashem, and Bnei Yisrael is like Hashem’s firstborn.

Zera Shimshon adds that this argument isn’t so simple; why didn’t Pharaoh answer back, “On the contrary! A different Medrash in Beraishis explains that it was part of Hashem’s plan for Eisav to be born before Yaakov in order that he would absorb all the impurities of Rivka, so Yaakov would be born pure! R’ Avohu explains that this can be compared to a bathhouse keeper who first cleans the bath house and only after the bath house is clean does he wash the king’s son. Not only is the firstborn inferior to his siblings, but he is the one that causes their superiority, by cleansing his mother of her impurities when he is born, so the subsequent children will be free of impurities. That being so, the fact that Bnei Yisrael are considered to be Hashem’s firstborn is not a reason for Pharaoh to free them; just the opposite, this justifies him to keep them enslaved, that they, being Hashem’s firstborn, will continue to serve the Mitzrim.

Zera Shimshon explains, 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 became tainted with certain impurities. At that time, the firstborn lost their special status because at the time of their births they would absorb the impurities of their mother. From that time on, from everyone born after Adam Harishon, there was actually no difference between the firstborn and a subsequent child.

Things changed after the enslavement and affliction in Mitzrayim. The mefarshim explain that the pain and suffering Bnei Yisrael experienced in Mitzrayim 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 was completed when we received the Torah at Har Sinai.

According to this we can understand the depth of why Pharaoh did not want to free Bnei Yisrael from Mitzrayim. Pharaoh knew the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov were like the firstborn of Hashem. Pharaoh thought this was a defect and not a virtue; like it had become from the time Chava sinned, and Yaakov (who had bought the rights of the bechor) was really inferior to Eisav. Because of this, Pharaoh thought that there was nothing wrong with continuing to enslave Bnei Yisrael, since the lot of the firstborn is to serve the younger siblings.

Hashem therefore told Moshe to explain to Pharaoh that things are different now. From now on, since Bnei Yisrael had begun to be purified, it is now a virtue to be the firstborn, like it was in the very beginning of creation. Therefore, Pharaoh should immediately free Bnei Yisrael from bondage.

According to this we can reconcile the contradiction of when the firstborn acquired their special status, at the very beginning of mankind or at the Exodus from Egypt. The answer is that both are true! In the beginning of creation the firstborns were holy, but this holiness was lost when Chava ate from the Eitz Hadaas. However, at the time of the Exodus from Egypt they regained their special kedusha!

To summarize, Zera Shimshon points out a seeming contradiction regarding the timing of when the firstborns attained their special status. On the one hand, Adam wearing the garments of the Kohain Gadol implies that firstborns were considered holy from the beginning of creation. On the other hand, there is a pasuk that indicates that they only were considered special from the time Bnei Yisrael left Mitzrayim.

Zera Shimshon resolves this contradiction, that the status of the firstborns was not consistent; it had its ups and downs. The initial plan was for them to be special like Adam, and this status was passed down to the firstborns in the subsequent generations.

Contrary to their previous state, the firstborns lost this status as they absorbed impurities during childbirth following Chava’s sin. Yet, the period of servitude and suffering in Mitzrayim served as a purifying experience for Bnei Yisrael, cleansing them from these impurities. As a result, Hashem was able to restore their special status, allowing them to once again experience the elevated position they had before the sin of consuming from the Eitz Hadaas.

HaRav Shimshon Nachmani, author of Zera Shimshon lived in Italy about 300 years ago in the time of the Or HaChaim HaKodesh. He had one child who died in his lifetime (hence the name “Zera Shimshon,”) and in the preface he promises people who learn his sefarim after he dies: “And your eyes will see children and grandchildren like the offshoots of an olive tree around your tables, wise and understanding with houses filled with all manner of good things… and wealth and honor…”

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