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REDEEMING QUALITIES

by Rabbi Yisrael Shaw    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

"For every firstborn belongs to Me, for on the day that I struck down the firstborn of the land of Egypt, I sanctified unto Me every firstborn of Israel, from Man to animal. Unto Me shall they be given, I am Hashem" (Numbers 3:13).

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"For every firstborn belongs to Me, for on the day that I struck down the firstborn of the land of Egypt, I sanctified unto Me every firstborn of Israel, from Man to animal. Unto Me shall they be given, I am Hashem" (Numbers 3:13).

In this week's Torah portion, we find the basis for the mitzvah of Pidyon HaBen the redemption of the firstborn. Originally, the firstborn sons of Israel were the designated group of people who would serve Hashem in the Temple. Since Hashem personally intervened to save them when all of the firstborn Egyptians were killed, He thereby "acquired" them, so to speak, unto Himself. However, they lost that entitlement later when they participated in the sin of the golden calf, and the Levi'im (Levites) and Kohanim (priests) were chosen for the Temple service in their stead. However, the sanctity of the firstborn sons still remained, and thus every father is obligated to redeem his firstborn son by paying the equivalent of five silver shekels to a priest (see Numbers 3:47).

This mitzvah is treated with much respect and fanfare, and rightfully so, for it is a once in a lifetime mitzvah, and it is not very common. In order for a father to be obligated to redeem his firstborn son (or for a firstborn son to be obligated to redeem himself if his father did not), there are many conditions that must be met. Among them are: (1) the mother must not be the daughter of a Levi or a Kohen, and the father must not be a Levi or a Kohen; (2) the son must be the first child to pass through the mother's womb (thus, if the mother had a miscarriage, after a certain stage of gestation, before this child was born, there is no Pidyon HaBen); (3) the son must be born naturally, and not by Caesarean.

Let us look more deeply into this mitzvah and its significance. The verse above states that the firstborn son is sanctified to Hashem. In Jewish law, any sanctified object (known as hekdesh in Hebrew) may not be used for personal purposes; it may only be used for the purpose for which it was sanctified. One of our goals in life is to make ourselves worthy of sanctity, of holiness, as the Torah itself commands us to do (Leviticus 19:2). Why, then, do we redeem our firstborn son? If it is so great to be holy, why redeem him and remove his special sanctity? We should leave him in his state of holiness and rejoice that we have such a son.

This question becomes more pronounced when we take a look at how the commentators explain the mitzvah of Pidyon HaBen. The Aruch HaShulchan, a classic halachic compendium by Rav Yechiel Michal Epstein, who lived in the 19th century, writes that the reason we redeem the firstborn son is in order to enable him to live in the mundane world. When a firstborn son is born, he comes into the world with vestiges of the original sanctity with which Hashem sanctified the firstborn sons of Israel in Egypt. The mitzvah of Pidyon HaBen redeems him from this sanctity. Indeed, if a firstborn son was not redeemed, he would retain this sanctity. By redeeming him, the father enables the son to live in the mundane, unsanctified world. Given this explanation, says the Aruch HaShulchan, there is no father in the world who would not want to redeem his son.

This is an enlightening explanation of the mitzvah, but one thing remains puzzling. What does the Aruch HaShulchan mean that there is no father who would not want to redeem his son? What father would want to remove his son from holy matters? Is it not our most earnest desire and hope that our children lead lives of holiness, of purity, dedicated to Torah and to the service of Hashem?

The answer to this question lies in a basic principle of Judaism. If Hashem desires for us to do His will, why did He create us with the choice not to? He should have created us with inborn instincts to follow the mitzvot, without the ability to choose to go against His word.

Obviously, free will is essential to our purpose here on earth. He created us with the choice to serve Him or not to serve Him, in order to give us the opportunity to activate our own free will. Hashem does not want robots; he wants people to choose to serve Him. Without free will, one's service of Hashem is fundamentally lacking. In a deeper sense, the prime way in which we accomplish the purpose for which we were created to come close to the Divine is by emulating Him, and it is through the attribute of free choice that we find our most pronounced likeness to Hashem.

Leaving a firstborn son in his postpartum state of exclusive sanctity would leave him without the option to choose between being holy and being otherwise; between the sacred and the mundane. He would be limited, or restricted, to a life of holiness, and while that is not undesirable in and of itself, it is still not the highest level of service to Hashem for this child. By redeeming him from that sanctity, we bring him into the unlimited realm of the world of free choice; we give him the opportunity to choose to be holy. Then, when he chooses as we hope he will sanctity over the mundane world, he will attain ever loftier heights than he would have attained had he remained sanctified from birth. By being redeemed, he has the ability to choose to be holy, and there is no greater act of serving G-d than making a personal choice to be holy. Certainly, as the Aruch HaShulchan says, there is no father who would not want to redeem his child and thereby deny him this tremendous opportunity for spiritual accomplishment.

Thus, when we redeem a firstborn son, we are not withdrawing him from being dedicated fully to Hashem. To the contrary by the very act of redeeming him from his state of sanctity, we are dedicating him to a life of greater sanctity, for now he has the ability to choose to be holy. Until the Pidyon HaBen, he was sanctified; now, he can sanctify himself.

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Rabbi Yisrael Shaw attended Yeshiva Atlanta, lives in Israel, and teaches Torah over the Internet at www.dafyomi.co.il

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