Parshat Bo: Thanks But I’d Rather Be Second
Over the years, I have explained to parents and grandparents what happens when the first baby a woman has is a boy. Everyone is familiar with the ‘bris’, the celebration Jewish people do that surrounds circumcising the baby boy. It’s usually done early in the morning. We can thank Abraham, the Patriarch, for that timing because he was the first Jew to be circumcised, and he always preferred doing God’s bidding early in the morning —that’s why the Sages told us that the Shacharit service (morning prayer service) is to symbolize Abraham. So, like Abraham, we get up at the crack of dawn and rush to the ‘bris’. The ceremony itself is not very long (thank goodness because everyone there is uncomfortable thinking about it). After the ‘bris’ there is a breakfast served. That’s because we are commanded to surround rituals with a meal, to emphasize that while we are engaged in spiritual expressions with God, we must never forget to ensure everyone has the basics of food – some form of bagels…and lox, of course.. Jewish spirituality must balance with the realities of this world.
Ceremonies for naming baby girls are still open for development. We have some very beautiful traditions in both the Sephardic and Ashkenazi world that can help parents create meaningful ritual for their daughters. Whatever the ceremony looks like, it will be followed by a meal, and no surprise, probably bagels and lox at that one too. I’ve often heard the baby girl’s naming ceremony referred to as the ‘bris-ket’).
When my husband was planning the ‘bris’ for one of our sons, it happened that the only mohel in town was sick. He told us to call 1-800-BABY-BOY, which we did, and a mohel flew in from New York and performed the bris. Globally, Jews take that eighth day bris commandment very seriously.
But, if the baby boy is the mother’s first born, the thirty day birthday will trigger another Jewish commanded event: ‘Pidyon haBen’ —‘Redemption of the Child’. It is a lesser known ritual, but it is equally commanded in the Torah. We buy our child out of a lifetime of service to God.
‘Pidyon haBen’ is the result of the final plague in Egypt —death of the first born. In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Bo, we finish reading about the plagues, God’s explanation of that final plague, and its ramifications moving forward. We usually understand that last plague as God passing through Egypt and taking the lives of all the Egyptian first born. Except, the Torah didn’t exactly say that. The Torah states that God will pass through Egypt and take the lives of every eldest child born in Egypt. Worded that way, it now includes all the Jewish first born as well. The fact that the Israelite first born shelter in homes that have blood painted on the doorposts means they are protected, it does not mean they are exempted.
Even these days, the ‘Fast of the First Born’ that occurs right before Passover commemorates the unique positioning of these people within the Passover experience.
Because Jewish eldest children were not exempted, they now owe every breath they take to God. They are to live out their lives in the service of God, who owns their futures. The Torah says we can redeem them out of this predicament. The ceremony is called ‘Pidyon haBen’, the ‘Redemption of the Child’.
But, wouldn’t we want our child to live in the service of God? Isn’t that an entrance to holiness? Shouldn’t we be honoured?
We’re honoured with the concept but we’d rather our children choose their own destinies. Starting in the ancient world, the Sages look for ways to minimize who would be obligated for a ‘Pidyon’. It must be the child that is the mother’s ‘first opening of her womb’, so a previous miscarriage or abortion would now nullify the obligation of any subsequent birth. The Sages rule that it must be the womb opening on its own, therefore any C-section delivery would nullify the need for a Pidyon. If either parent is the child of a Cohen or a Levi, they don’t have a Pidyon. That’s because Cohens and Levites were the ones serving God (when we had a Temple), —they’re the ones we redeem our children from. But the Sages are making these laws when there is no Temple. They are clearly trying to minimize the scope of the law when it involves limiting our childrens’ life choices.
Judaism always teaches us to temper our spiritual expressions with an understanding of the real world. Life is always a challenge, how much more so if one is forced into a life of spiritual service when they do not prefer it. Holiness is to be sought and found each in our own way, but we do not seek a life of only holiness or a life that sits exclusively in this world, we are commanded to seek them both.
It seems like finding our balance between our spiritual and material worlds shouldn’t be too difficult. We generally shape our lives to be productive for our work week, spiritual retreat for Shabbat and run all our errands on Sundays. With particular adjustments, each of us could generally find some form of balance that would work for us, and we would revisit it as needed for minor tweaks. But these days are not our norm as we encounter the global pandemic that still challenges lives and livelihoods. Many of us find ourselves becoming stagnant in our current reality. It is easy to neglect our spiritual expressions as we notice every day resembles every other day. Someone mentioned to me that every day has now become ‘Blursday’. But the opposite reality is equally true. We can easily sit quietly with our thoughts and our spiritual moments while we wait for the world outside our doors to change. We can retreat from our physical involvement in the world and plan our re-entry when the vaccine is complete and the world goes back to what it was. We forget that time and experience can only move us forward –we forget that the real world will never go backward to what was, so we favour our spiritual reclusivity.
The Torah reminds us that even when God tells us to devote someone’s entire life to spirituality, we argue for a balance in our lives —how much more is that balance crucial for our present moment.
Would you like to receive reminders when Rachael publishes a new blog? Head over to the form on the side of this page and sign up for our newsletter.