Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Destiny of the Firstborn

                                               For all the firstborn of the children of Israel 
                                               are mine, both man and beast,on the day I 
                                               smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt I 
                                               sanctified them unto me.
                                               And I have taken the Levites in the place of 
                                               all the firstborn of the children of  Israel.
                                                                      Bamidbar 8:20        

     The Torah calls the firstborn (bechor) "petter rechem"- he who opens the womb. He is the first expression of life of the new generation. The next link in the chain of generations of the Jewish People and as such is sanctified to the service of  Hashem.. This primogeniture  has its expression in all of the living world. The first fruits of the new season, the bikkurim , were brought to the temple on the festival of Shavuot. The firstborn  calves and lambs were sanctified and offered to the cohanim.

   It is very interesting that the Torah has a very ambivalent attitude towards the firstborn. Cain is the firstborn but Abel is preferred by Hashem. Yaakov has to buy the bechora from Esau. Yaakov's firstborn was Reuven, but Yehudah becomes the leader of the tribes. Ephraim recieves Yaakov's blessing instead of his firstborn brother Menashe in spite of the protests of Yosef..David was chosen as the annointed king even though he was the youngest of his brothers.It seems as if the Torah is telling us that biological primacy is not enough. Leadership must be earned and if  the firstborn is not worthy he will not be chosen.

  The most telling example is the displacement of the firstborn of the Exodus by the levites. When Hashem smote the firstborn of Egypt and passed over the firstborn of Israel they were sanctified to the service of Hashem. However when the firstborn of Israel worshipped the golden calf  they forfeited their exalted status. In their place the Levites, the tribe of Moshe and Aharon who did not sin at the golden calf were chosen. In spite of this some primal holiness was retained by the firstborn of future generations.That is why we perform the ceremony of  pidyon ha-ben ( redeeming of the firstborn) when a firstborn baby is one month old.

  My grandfather and father were the firstborn in their families. I am a firstborn myself, I have a firstborn son and he also has a firstborn son. We are five generations of bechorim. Each of us in his time has expressed the special character of the bechor "he who opens the womb" by breaking out of the mold, not being satisfied with living within the circumstances into which he was born. My grandfather David Fenster was born in Eastern Europe where very likely our ancestors had lived for the past thousand years.He was the first in his family who realized that there was no future for the Jews in Europe. He emigrated to America at the beginning of the last century. My father, Henry Fenster grew up the son of immigrants in Philadelphia. He was the first in his family to join the U.S Army to fight the Nazis and was probably the first Jewish soldier in our family since the Exile. He was seriously wounded in France but baruch Hashem survived the war and came home married and started a family. I grew up in a typical suburban, middle class Jewish home, but for some reason at a very early age the fact of being Jewish became the most important, driving force in my life. I heard the same call as the patriarch Abraham "Go out of your land, the place of your birth, out of your fathers house to the land which I will show you" As soon as I finished high school and turned eighteen I emigrated to Israel.My son Efi was the first in our family to go to Yeshiva and dedicate himself to the study of Torah.

  I don't know yet what challenges my first grandson, Oz, will face. I pray that he will be the first to greet the Mashiach, may Hashem send him speedily and in our days.


  1. אמן, כן יהי רצון

  2. I wish you and Risa many simcha's with your children, grandchildren, and future grandchildren to come.

    I so admire that you emigrated to Israel. That took so much courage to leave the familiar behind and go forth into the land of Israel.