The firstborn of both man and animal is sanctified to G-d (Exodus 13:2).
Indeed, the first issue of the Children of Israel were consecrated in
Egypt when they were spared as G-d struck down all the Egyptian firstborns
(Numbers 8:17 ). The firstborn animals were presented to the kohen, priest
who offered up the unblemished animals as a sacrifices on the Altar. The
firstborn son of man had to be redeemed by the father from the priest for
5 silver pieces (See Numbers 18:15).
This week's parshah discusses the consecration of the Tribe of Levi. In
the aftermath of the Golden Calf, the firstborns' right to serve in the
Sanctuary was lost only to be replaced by the Levites who were assigned
all the tasks in the Sanctuary: "I took the Levites in place of every
firstborn among the Children of Israel" (Numbers 8:18).
In spite of this, there persists an innate "holiness" to the Jewish
firstborns from their salvation in Egypt in the Tenth Plague: the Death of
the Firstborn. The firstborn to emerge from the womb is considered the
natural candidate for living an existence of holiness.
That which underscores the sanctity of the firstborn is the Jewish nation
herself. The chosen people of the Children of Israel are called, in its
entirety, as the quintessential bechor: G-d calling them "My son, My
firstborn Israel " (Exodus 4:22).
What is the uniqueness of a firstborn? And why is he the most appropriate
candidate for holiness more than any other child?
The uniqueness of the firstborn, explains the Meshech Chochmah (Exodus
4:22), rests in the fact that he makes his father into a father. Thus, the
Jewish people are called G-d's firstborn because it is they who crown Him
as Our Father in Heaven.
Israel was not, in fact, the first nation to emerge on the scene. On the
contrary, their nationhood in the Exodus was established well after that
of other seventy nations (See Maharal, Gur Aryeh Bereishis 1).
Nevertheless, they were the "first in thought".
Whatever is first is related to the "essence" and "purpose" of a process.
It harks back to the original intent. The first stage is pivotal because
this sets out exactly where one is heading and why: "everything follows
after the head [beginning stage]" (Pirkei deR'Eliezer Ch.42).
The Jewish nation is identified with the word reishis, "first"
or "beginning" (Rashi, Genesis 1:1). This is because creation was because
of Israel and their study and observance of the Torah. Their status of
firstborn was earned because of their single-minded efforts to universally
proclaim G-d as "father of the world" – Ovinu Malkeinu, Our Father, Our
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Genesis 4:4) observes how the "first" is
always taken as the representative dedication of all the rest. So when man
places what is first and foremost before G-d, he is indicating how his
relationship with G-d constitutes the first and most important one. It
alone is placed at the fore. It alone gives meaning to his life. And how
his whole existence is to bestow glory onto his Father. No wonder why the
firstborn naturally gravitates to holiness and to G-dliness.
Where the firstborn is sanctified, then this majestically paves the way
for everything else urging it to follow on. Where the Jewish nation taps
into their spirituality as endemic to the symbolism of a firstborn, then
they are able to similarly influence the rest of the world to forever
relate back to the Origin: to G-d.