Parashat Bo

Exodus — Parashat Bo

This essay was originally given as a lecture by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz z”l, and printed as a chapter in Talks on the Parasha, a collection of transcribed lectures and lessons, published by Koren Books. It is reproduced in full here, with permission.

Parashat Bo, whose climax is the plague of the firstborn, concludes with a law that is likewise connected to the firstborn: “Consecrate to Me every firstborn” (Ex. 13:2)

The firstborn once possessed a special status: The firstborn in each family received a double share of the inheritance and, as a group, almost always became the Priests. Nowadays, not much of this special status remains. The last remnant of it is perhaps the custom that, when there are no Levites present in the synagogue, the firstborn wash the hands of the Priests prior to the Birkat Kohanim.

But what is the point of this special status? Are the firstborn more successful? It is a known fact that in the case of animals, this is not so. In fact, scientific literature has shown just the opposite — that the firstborn in many animal species have a much lower survival rate than offspring born to their mothers thereafter. In the case of human beings, however, the matter is not so simple, and in the Torah as well the matter of the firstborn is multifaceted and variegated.

In the Torah’s narratives, only little importance is assigned to the firstborn. Various sources, such as “Reuben, you are my firstborn” (Gen. 49:3) or “Israel is My son, My firstborn” (Ex. 4:22), do seem to indicate preference given to the firstborn, but more prominent in these narratives is the tension between the firstborn and the chosen son. The world’s first firstborn, Cain, does not distinguish himself with noble character traits. (According to one opinion among our sages, humanity today is actually descended from Cain, a possibility that would explain much of our history.) The overwhelming majority of the Torah’s great personalities, with the prominent exception of Abraham, are not firstborn: Isaac, Joseph, Judah, Moses, David, Solomon — the list goes on and is quite impressive.

On the other hand, in the laws of the Torah, clear preference is given to the firstborn. Besides the laws regarding human firstborn, the Torah assigns sanctity to the firstlings of “pure” animals, designating them as korbanot, and to the firstlings of donkeys, instructing us to redeem them or perform arifa, killing them with a blow to the back of the neck. In other areas of Torah law as well, we find mitzvot that reflect an aspect of the firstling or firstborn laws; for example: an omer of the first of the harvest, the first fruits of the soil, teruma (which is called “reshit”, meaning “First”), the first shearing of the fleece, etc.

In the case of human firstborn, however, there is an unresolved question: How do we redeem the firstborn, and what happens if he is not redeemed? Obviously, he is neither subjected to arifa nor taken by the Priest. The truth is that nothing happens to him. What, then, is the point of the firstborn? What is his role? Why is he given a special status, with a position of greater privilege and sanctity?

“The First Fruits of His Harvest”

The answer to these questions lies not in the firstborn’s own essential worth but in the special feeling and affection that we have for things that are first. The first fruit is not necessarily the choicest, but our connection to it is the deepest, and it is different from our connection to the fruit that comes after it, even if the first is not always worthy and deserving of this affection.

This can be observed in actual life as well. Everything that a person creates gives him a feeling of amazement, but some of the most powerful feelings are bound up with one’s first creation. When Cain, the first child in the world, is born, Eve proclaims, “I have acquired a man together with God!” (Gen. 4:1). The names of her second and third children are given but not explained, and thereafter the Torah suffices with the statement, “and he begot sons and daughters” (5:4). The first letter that a child writes is not necessarily the most beautiful letter that he will ever write, but it is the first; every letter that follows it will be just another letter. Similarly, the Talmud states, “A woman is [like] an unfinished vessel, and makes a covenant only with [her first husband] who fashions her into a [finished] vessel [when they are first together]” (Sanhedrin 22b). The same applies to difficult experiences, such as one’s first encounter with death or other crises.

As we have stated, in all these areas the first creation or the first experience is not necessarily the best or most perfect. Its uniqueness is that we remember it in a special way; it is indelibly engraved in our memories. After all, there cannot be two firstborn children, and even if the first does not turn out to be successful — like Reuben, “exceeding in eminence and exceeding in power” (Gen. 49:3)1 — he is still Jacob’s firstborn. Likewise, according to halakha, a firstborn who is a bastard or the son of an unloved wife still receives a double share in the inheritance, even if a different son is legitimate or more beloved.

Herein also lies the superiority of childhood education. At first glance, this superiority appears to be counterintuitive, for children are often immature and easily confused, whereas adults possess a far greater degree of understanding. In reality, however, what is absorbed as a primary experience becomes ingrained in a more fundamental way, while what is learned later in life — even if it is deeper and more nuanced — does not retain the same character of primacy.

This is what our sages mean when they say, “One who learns when young, to what may he be compared? To ink written on fresh paper. But one who learns when old, to what may he be compared? To ink written on paper that has been erased” (Avot 4:20). It could be that what is written on the fresh paper is inaccurate, and what is written afterward is correct; but since the latter is not written on fresh paper, it is much less likely to be retained.

The issue of the firstborn’s uniqueness is not a quantitative question of greater or lesser feeling. Just as it is always possible to find a greater number, there can always be a greater emotion as well. However, it is impossible to find a number that is “more first.” The first possesses a certain quality that is immutable and ineradicable.

The Talmud presents an interpretation that seems almost hasidic:

[The community of Israel] said before [The Holy One, Blessed Be He]: “Master of the Universe, since there is no forgetfulness before the throne of Your glory, perhaps you will not forget the sin of the [Golden] Calf? He replied; “‘Even these will be forgotten’ (Is. 49:15).” She said before Him: “Master of the Universe, since there is forgetfulness before the throne of Your glory, perhaps You will forget [what You said at ] Sinai?”2 He replied to her: “‘For your sake, I will not forget Anokhi’ (49:15).”3 (Berhakhot 32b)

To be sure, after responding, “We will do and obey” (Ex. 24:7), before receiving the Torah at Sinai, the people made the Golden Calf and went on to make all sorts of calves, for themselves and for the entire world. Nevertheless, what they said first — “We will do and obey” — will never be forgotten.

Loss of the Beginning

The essence of the firstborn, then, teaches us what a person should do in his life, how he should devote his primary energy and creativity: “I therefore offer to God all male firstborn animals, and shall redeem all the firstborn of my sons” (Ex. 13:15). The things to which we have the deepest emotional attachment, which can never be replicated, are the very things that should be given to God. In every matter, one must scrutinize himself as to whether he truly gave “the choicest first fruits of his land” to God.

Traditionally, one of the first things a Jewish child is taught to say is “Shema Yisrael.” But why bother? Does the child understand what the Shema is? He will surely understand it better when he grows up. Nonetheless, we try to arrange it so that his first sentence, the “first fruit,” will be “Shema Yisrael,” for that is what will be ingrained in his personality.

Just as there are first fruits of the soil, there are also first deeds and first dreams. Here as well, people become more sophisticated as they mature, as do their aspirations and dreams. Nevertheless, there is a special significance to one’s first dreams.

However, there is a fundamental problem: A person who is in the stage of a fresh beginning does not always understand the world around him, and by the time he does understand, he often can no longer return to his original state of youthful freshness. In our youth, we do not always know the significance of the things we do, the activities to which we dedicate ourselves. Only after passing this stage do we understand how many things could have been done so much better, but by then it is too late — we cannot go back and correct our mistakes

Innocence, the moment it is lost, can never be recovered. An infant possesses a freshness that is totally pure, but with time it gradually fades. For youth in general, freshness springs from the very nature of that period of life. With time, though, this fades as well.

One of the interpretations of the verse, “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of youth” (Ps. 127:4), is that an arrow, the moment it is shot, cannot be called back. All the arrows that we shoot when we are still “children of youth” are like “arrows in the hand of a warrior,” in that they cannot be repeated. To be sure, every day of one’s life is unique and original, and even in old age it is still possible to continue growing; even death itself is a new experience. But new experiences no longer come with the same regularity and succession as in the days of one’s childhood and youth.

Almost any mistake can be rectified, but to reinvent oneself, to become like a new being, is the most difficult rectification of all. Regarding the verse, “For how shall I go up to my father if the youth is not with me?” (Gen. 44:34), one explanation is that “the youth” refers to a person’s youthful years, for many people leave these years behind when they ascend to heaven to meet their Creator.

“Give Me the Firstborn of Your Sons”

What should be done with the firstborn, then, is “Give Me the firstborn of your sons” (Ex. 22:28); that is, dedicate the first thing to God. Since there is some aspect of renewal each and every day, this dedication can be fulfilled by devoting one’s first thought each day to holy matters.

This is one of the reasons that we recite “Modeh ani” upon awakening in the morning, even before the morning ritual washing of the hands, before uttering any other words. Clearly, not everyone says “Modeh ani” with reverence; generally, it is muttered out of habit, when one is still half asleep. Nevertheless, we persist in saying “Modeh ani,” so that no matter what follows throughout the day, we always dedicate the first moment to God. For this same reason there are many people who take care not to do anything before they pray in the morning. This is also the reason why Rosh HaShana is considered to be one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar: It begins a new year.

Approaching every undertaking as if it were an entirely new beginning, even if the reality is otherwise, is an extraordinarily difficult spiritual endeavor. Even with the guidance of our extensive teshuva literature, it is still incredibly challenging to become a new being, the likes of which never existed before.

Cain offered to God “of the fruit of the soil” (Gen. 4:3), surely consisting of fine, good fruit. In contrast, Abel “Also (gam hu) brought the firstlings of his flock” (4:4). Abel brought not only “firstlings” but “gam hu” — he brought himself as well. One who succeeds in offering his inner self to God will be able to experience “your youth will be renewed like an eagle” (Ps. 103:5), to approach the world through the fresh eyes of a child once again.

1. See Rashi’s explanation
2. Namely, “I (Anokhi) am God your Lord” (Ex. 20:2)
3. This is a play on words; the simple meaning of the verse is “For your sake, I (Anokhi) will not forget.”