By Rabbi Dorit Edut
The recent tragedy of the cold-blooded shooting of twenty-six young children and four of their adult staff at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut shocked our entire nation. After ungluing ourselves from the media reports, some of us looked for spiritual and practical ways to express our sorrow and identification with the victims’ families – leading or attending worship services, sending items to help the survivors, signing petitions against gun violence and writing to our congressmen, etc. But I would venture to say that the most prevalent reaction was to contact our children, grandchildren, children of friends and neighbors to make sure they were safe, to offer them an extra hug or bit of loving advice, and probably to whisper a little prayer asking for God’s continued protection of these precious ones. Can we make sense of this and other such violent events that have left too many of our young people dead this past year?
After witnessing the traumatic events of the plagues in Egypt, especially the tenth plague which resulted in the death of the firstborn of all Egyptians, I imagine our ancestors had somewhat similar reactions. This horrific event occurs just prior to our Exodus from Egypt, as we read in this week’s Torah portion and every year at our Passover Seder. Yes, it was definitely a time of great expectations and jubilation for our people as we gained our freedom from slavery and began our national and spiritual life.
But at what price? The Torah vividly describes what happened to our former slave masters and neighbors- and we know that seeing their plight had a deeply sobering effect on us. The tenth plague alone was, and still is, a troubling matter for us. After all, we had been taught by the example of our forefathers Abraham and Isaac that child sacrifice was something abhorrent, that human life was of supreme value.
The sudden death of the firstborn Egyptians is followed by a new mitzvah mentioned shortly after events of the Exodus night:
“Kadesh Li khol b’chor peter kol rehem bi-V’nai Yisrael ba’adam u-vabehemah Li hu – Consecrate to Me every firstborn; man and beast, the first issue of every womb among the Israelites is Mine.” (Exodus 13:2)
This “consecration” of the firstborn sons meant serving God in priestly service; following the incident of the Golden Calf, only the tribal descendants of Aaron and Moses (Kohen and Levi) could fill this role. For all other firstborn sons, there developed a ritual to redeem them from this consecrated service (see Numbers 3:45-47): the ritual of Pidyon HaBen on the 30th day following the non-caesarean birth of a son who was not from a Kohen or Levite parent (father or mother). The boy is “redeemed” by the payment of five silver coins to a Kohen. This money, in turn, is to be used for charitable purposes. (Shulhan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah, 305)
The child is often placed on a silver tray, surrounded by candies and garlic, symbols of sweetness and fertility. When brought to the seated Kohen, the father is asked by him: “Mai ba-it tefay – What do you prefer more?” (i.e., your son or the silver coins). Blessings are recited and a festive meal ensues.
But the deeper meaning of this ritual indicates how this trauma of near-death was dealt with in our tradition. We read in Midrash Shemot Rabbah 19:8-9:
“Rabbi Nehemiah says: God says to Israel – When you enter the land you will set aside the firstborn of each womb for Me . Could they not have set aside these immediately? As it is written: ‘you shall set aside the firstborn issue of each womb to God.’ Immediately, God warns them that He had mercy on them in Egypt.”
This ritual transforms deep-seated worry and traumatic memory into an appreciation for life. It emphasizes that having a firstborn child is truly a Divine gift, and, though fraught with uncertainty, it can best be acknowledged through acts of thanks and tzedakah.
As it says in the words of Sefer ha-Hinnukh, Mitzvah 18:
“When we consecrate our very first and very best, we are reminded that everything really belongs to our Creator, and that we must ‘purchase’ it from Him before using it.”
Today, as we think about the victims of violence in our world today, let us find ways to redeem their lives and ours, to make safety and the sacredness of life the values that spur our actions and inspire all human beings!
Rabbi Dorit Edut (AJR ’06) is the head of The Detroit Interfaith Outreach Network and teaches at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue