The Redemption of the First-Born
The Hebrew word for the Book of Numbers is ‘Bamidbar,’ which means ‘desert’ for it narrates the events that occurred while the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness. In fact, it is in this book of the Bible that we learn of the sin of the spies which results in the Children of Israel spending 40 long years in the desert.
But the name “Numbers” is actually very appropriate as a name of this book, and especially of this week’s portion, since the portion is mostly concerned with the census of the Children of Israel. Our sages say that God’s counting of His children is a sign of His love for us, similar to the way a person will count his treasures and make sure they are all where they need to be.
I would like to focus on one small aspect of the census. There is a separate census of the Levites and of the first-born of all of Israel, and God designates the Levites as His special servants, in place of the first- born.
Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the people of Israel. The Levites shall be mine, for all the firstborn are mine. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both of man and of beast. They shall be mine: I am the Lord. (Numbers 3:12-13)
These two verses contain such a powerful message. When God sent the angel of death to kill all the first-born of Egypt, the Children of Israel were instructed to put blood on the door posts of their homes, so the angel of death would skip over them. And, indeed, every first-born in Egypt was killed, except the first-born of Israel. And from that day forward, says God, the first born of Israel are special to him. For when He saved them, he set them aside as holy to Him.
It seems that the first-born would, therefore, have been those chosen to serve God in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple, but then God instructs the Levites to take their place. And, in fact, when the final census is taken, the difference in numbers between the Levites and the first-born must be redeemed in a special ceremony. (Numbers 3:45-51) But nowhere in the Bible does it say why this change took place.
Rashi, a famous 11th century Jewish commentator, noted an ancient Jewish tradition that this switch came as a result of the sinning of the Children of Israel with the Golden Calf. The only people who did not join the worshipping frenzy were the tribe of the Levites and, in fact, it is the Levites who assist Moses in punishing the sinners. It is the children of Levy who respond to Moses’ call “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.” (Exodus 32:26). Since the Levites did not sin against God with this horrible sin of idol worship, betraying God who had just redeemed them from Egypt and given them the Torah at Sinai, they and only they would be able to serve God on behalf of the entire people of Israel in the Temple.
To this day, all first-born sons to a Jewish mother are redeemed, at the age of one month, in a special ceremony in which the father of the child gives five silver pieces to a member of the priestly group of Levy, a Cohen. Until this redemption takes place, the first- born is dedicated to God. But, as a result of the sin of the Golden Calf, that first-born is not able to serve God in the Temple. He must be redeemed and exchanged with a Levite.
The modern redemption process essentially serves to remind us not only of the ancient ceremony that took place in the desert as noted in Numbers 3, but represents the divine statement that the Nation of Israel is holy. The first-born are especially dear to God, as He saved the first born of Israel even as He destroyed the first born of the Egyptians. The Levites are holy and special for their devotion to God even as the rest of the nation sinned and for their subsequent selection to serve God in the Tabernacle. And the entire nation is “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6)
Shabbat Shalom From Samaria,
Director, Israel Office