This week’s Torah portion describes the first census of the children of Israel. One of God’s instructions to Moses is that he was not to count the tribe of Levi among the other tribes. They were to be counted separately. Later, after the census of everyone else was complete, God commanded Moses to count the Levites. (3:15) But just prior to God’s command to count the Levites, God told Moses the following:
“God spoke to Moses saying, ‘Behold! I have taken the Levites from among the Children of Israel, in place of every firstborn, the first issue of every womb among the Children of Israel, and the Levites shall be Mine. For every firstborn is Mine: On the day I struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt I sanctified every firstborn in Israel for Myself, from man to beast; they shall be Mine – I am the Lord.” – Numbers 3:11-13
Later in the chapter, after the Levites were counted, Moses was commanded to count the firstborns of the other tribes and to exchange them for the Levites. In other words, each firstborn of the other tribes would have his priestly status transferred to a Levite. Because there were more firstborns than Levites, any remaining firstborns that had not been matched up with a Levite were to be redeemed for five silver shekels. (3:40-51) This redemption for five silver shekels is the rule to this day. Firstborn males of any non-Levite family are redeemed from a kohen – a priest from the descendants of Aaron – for five silver shekels.
According to this passage, God chose the firstborns of Israel on the night that He “struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt.” He later chose the Levites to replace of the firstborns of Israel. The Levites were thus chosen to perform the various services in the Tabernacle and to take care of the Tabernacle during travel. Rashi (11th century France), the greatest of all Jewish commentators, explains:
For service was done by the firstborns, but when they sinned at the Golden Calf they were disqualified, and the Levites who did not worship idolatry were chosen in their place. – Rashi, Numbers 3:12
Let’s sum up what we have seen from these verses with the help of Rashi. The firstborn males were originally chosen for the priestly role in Israel. They were chosen on the night of the plague of the firstborns when all Egyptian firstborns were killed. Later, due to their role in the sin of the Golden Calf, they lost this status. They were replaced by the Levites who did not sin.
To fully understand this complex issue, let’s take a closer look at the two events referred to above: the plague of the firstborns and the sin of the Golden Calf.
The Plague of the Firstborns
Let us review the events of that great and historic night. The night before the Exodus from Egypt, at exactly midnight, God killed every firstborn male in Egypt except for certain firstborns of Israel. Those Israelites who heeded the command of God were spared. If the Passover offering was slaughtered and the blood was placed on the doorposts and doorframe of the house, the firstborn of that house was safe. This Paschal lamb was the very first sacrificial offering brought by the Jewish people in their history as a nation. While all the children of Israel ate from the offering, the Paschal sacrifice had much greater significance for the firstborns. For them, the proper execution of God’s orders was a matter of life and death.
The truth is that every sacrifice is a matter of life and death, at least symbolically. The meaning behind all animal sacrifices is that the one bringing the sacrifice is meant to identify with the animal and realize that ideally it is he, rather than the animal, that deserves to be offered up to God. The illustrative paradigm of this idea is the binding of Isaac by Abraham in Genesis 22. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, who was then replaced by a ram. When the Paschal sacrifice was made in Egypt, this idea that the offering serves as a replacement and redemption for the life of the person was no doubt felt most profoundly by the firstborns of Israel. After all, for them it really was a question of either the death of a lamb or their own deaths.
Considering this backdrop, it was only natural that it was the firstborn of each family who actually carried out the slaughtering of the animal and the smearing of the doorposts with blood. This is alluded to by Rashi when he states that the service had previously been done by the firstborns. Since that there were no other sacrifices offered by Israel prior to the sin of the Golden Calf, what else could Rashi have meant when he wrote that prior to that sin, service was performed by the firstborns of Israel? By decreeing death for the firstborns of any family that failed to perform the Paschal offering, God created a situation wherein the firstborns of Israel became the primary focus and performers of the Children of Israel’s first sacrificial service to God, the Paschal offering. Through this process, the firstborns were chosen for Temple service.
The Golden Calf
After Moses descended Mount Sinai, saw the Golden Calf, and broke the tablets, he set to work rectifying the situation. Moses’ first task was to see who was still loyal to God and who was not.
Moses stood at the gateway to the camp and said, ‘Whoever is for God, join me!’ – and all the Levites gathered around him. – Exodus 32:26
At a time when allegiance to God was being tested, the Levites distinguished themselves. It is appropriate for them to be rewarded with a special relationship with God. Furthermore, based on what we have written above, it is safe to say that those were most to blame for the sin of the Golden Calf were the firstborns themselves.
The Bible tells us that the Golden Calf was worshipped with “elevation offerings and peace offerings” (Ex. 32:6). We can safely assume that the firstborns – already seen by the people as serving a priestly role – would have been the officiants of this pagan worship. Furthermore, all the tribal princes were firstborn males. In the culture of that time, the firstborn of a family was an authority figure. Clearly, if the people collectively committed such a grave sin, it is the firstborns – the natural and accepted leadership of the community – that ought to bear primary responsibility.
The Purpose of Redemption
If the status of the firstborns was stripped, why was it necessary to redeem them for five silver shekels? God could simply have stated that He has stripped the firstborns of their special status and bestowed it on the Levites. Furthermore, why does the Torah command us to continue the ceremonial redemption of non-Levite firstborns to this day?
I would like to suggest that the redemption of firstborns serves a very important purpose. Any class system in a society is a recipe for internecine strife. When this class system is defined exclusively by family lineage, the possibility of such strife is enhanced. The redemption of every firstborn male in Israel serves as a perpetual reminder of the origins of the special status of the Levites. Every time a firstborn is redeemed, we are reminded that ideally all families and tribes were to be of equal status. The tribe of Levi did not come by their status unjustly. They did not take it through force or political manipulation. They earned this status by answering Moses’ call and by demonstrating their devotion to God in a time of crisis.
At the same time, the firstborns, who remain the leaders of their tribes and families, are reminded of a time of failed leadership. As leaders of the community, they are forever reminded that leadership is correctly bestowed on those who answer the call, “Whoever is for God, join me!”
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast