First Thing’s First: B’midbar 2018

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: Do you like to keep track of prominent “firsts” in your life? Do you consider these “firsts” to be true milestones, or, mainly, coincidences?

In the Torah, firstborns get a lot of attention, but these “firsts” are not always momentous:

The Pitch: “For every firstborn is Mine: at the time that I smote every first-born in the land of Egypt, I consecrated every first-born in Israel, man and beast, to Myself, to be Mine, the LORD’s.” – Numbers 3:13

Swing #1: “Said the Lord: ‘Originally I took the first-born unto Myself to perform My service, under the condition that they should belong to Me and believe in My Divinity. But since they worshiped the Golden Calf, thus denying My Divinity, they are no longer Mine and I have taken unto Myself instead the tribe of Levi which refused to pay homage to the Golden Calf.’” – Meshekh Hakhmah

Swing #2: “Ultimately too, the whole ministry of the priesthood was a ministry of vicarious mediation, especially when it is remembered that they ate the flesh of the sin-offering. Again, the idea that the Levites were made over to Jahweh in place of the first-born, thus saving the latter from being sacrificed, must be kept in mind in this connection.” – Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Volume II

Swing #3: “What are we to make of a God who continues to stake out his portion, who claims every firstborn male, including cattle, even if what He settles for is ‘The Levites shall be Mine’ (Numbers 3:12)? He allows a substitution whereby both Levites and their cattle are counted toward the redemption (i.e., buying back) of His ‘property’. We are often returned by the Jewish Bible to a realistic transaction that indicates how human rights are not a given, but are established by grant and negotiation.” – Geoffrey H. Hartman, “Numbers”, from Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, edited by David Rosenberg

Late-Inning Questions: What are some reasons offered for God designating firstborns as Divine property? Given how often the Torah casts aside firstborns (i.e. Ishmael, Esau, Reuben) in favor of younger siblings (i.e. Isaac, Jacob, Joseph), what role does God seem to have in mind for firstborns? Is being first merely a footnote, or should it mean more than that?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Among our many holidays, Shavuot often is forgotten, or at least minimized. But the main purpose of its celebration – the Revelation at Mount Sinai – is, along with the Exodus from Egypt, the seminal event that define the purpose of Judaism. Celebrate with us by joining us between Saturday evening and Monday afternoon.

The Big Inning at the End: To illustrate how some firsts can be overrated, it’s timely to note that the first night game at Wrigley Field, which took place 30 years ago, was filled with fanfare and attention … until it rained out before completing the minimal amount of innings to be an official game.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!