By Rachel Lieberman
The bechor, the firstborn son, is a prominent theme on Passover. The bechor appears in the Haggadah, in the Torah readings for Passover and in the customs that surround the holiday. Makat haBechorot, the tenth plague where God slew the Egyptians’ firstborn sons and saved the Israelites’ sons is so significant that it is given as an answer for the redemption from Egypt.
God commands, “When your children say to you, ‘What is this service to you?’ You will say, ‘It is the Pascal sacrifice to God, who passed over the houses of the Children of Israel in Egypt when God smote the Egyptians, but God saved our households.” (Ex. 12:25-27)
We also remember this event twice daily in the liturgy, in the blessing before theAmidah, where we praise God for redeeming us from Egypt, saving our firstborn sons and smiting the Egyptians’ firstborn sons.
What is the significance of the bechor in the Passover narratives? Why are we required to transmit this narrative to our children on both a yearly and a daily basis? Rav Joseph Soloveitchik explains that Makat HaBechorot was a direct attack on the Egyptian conception of the firstborn.(1) In Egypt, the firstborn son was all-powerful. The monarchy was passed down from father to son and the Egyptian bechor did not earn his authority. He had the power to rule over the household just because he was the oldest.
When the Israelites entered the land of Egypt, they were the outsiders, and assumed the role of the younger son, vulnerable to teasing, persecution and enslavement. The Egyptian culture of the firstborn son as tyrant meant that each Israelite could be oppressed by any Egyptian.
During the tenth plague, every Egyptian firstborn was killed. According to Rav Soloveitchik, Makat HaBechorot was intended to wipe out the entire Egyptian culture of senseless oppression and tyranny symbolized by the firstborn son. This destruction is paired with the redemption of the Israelite firstborn sons, thereby introducing a new model of the bechor.
The Israelite bechor was also based on birth order, but is coupled with the weight of obligation and responsibility. God’s commandment to dedicate the firstborn child to God places restrictions and obligations on the person who might believe they have unlimited and unearned power. The bechor’s primary obligation is to serve God, not man. The yearly fast of the firstborn sons and the daily blessings before the Amidahserve as a reminder to the bechor that he would have perished if it were not for God’s benevolence. Since the firstborn children survived, they should serve as an example to the community.
The unrestricted power of the Egyptian bechor is replaced by the Jewish bechor --one who is obligated to serve God and to act as an example for his or her community. Older children have the privilege and the responsibility to teach, guide and train younger siblings. This obligation extends to both male and female firstborns, and to every single Jew as God designates the entire nation of Israel as God’s bechor.
As the firstborn daughter, I am intimately familiar with the delicate balance of power, responsibility and blame heaped upon the firstborn. It is much easier to follow the path of the Egyptian bechor—to bully or ignore your siblings in favor of forging your own path-- than to successfully support and teach siblings and other family members. According to Soloveitchik we should embrace the privilege of being teachers and role models. Today, we are living among the first generation of women who have had the opportunity to study Jewish texts rigorously and systematically, to adapt ritual practices to be more inclusive of women, and to adopt innovative leadership positions in the Orthodox community. We have been fortunate enough to see that these scholarly women, and the communities who support them, are not only leaders and trailblazers, but also model the behavior of Soloveitchik’s bechor, and elevate the entire Jewish community so that it is inclusive of all voices—female and male. This Passover, I hope we all have the privilege to reflect upon the blessings and responsibilities of including women in all aspects of our Jewish lives.
(1)Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Festival of Freedom: Essays on Pesah and the Haggadah. Ed. Joel B. Wolowelsky and Reuven Ziegler (Jersey City: Ktav Publishing House, 2006).
Rachel Lieberman will deliver the d'var Torah at Beth Sholom in Potomac, MD on Saturday, March 30. Rachel is JOFA's Program Manager and has studied at Yeshivat Hadar, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.