BEING G-D’S FIRSTBORN
The hardest question to answer as a religious Jew is, if G-d is everything, and G-d is good, then why is the world so messed up? Why is there so much bad in the world? Couldn’t G-d create a world in which things would just make more sense?
The answer gives a whole new perspective on Judaism. G-d did not finish creating the world. He left it up to mankind to finish creating it. Or more precisely, he left it up to us Jews to finish creating it. Or, even more precisely yet, he left it up to you to finish creating it. And if G-dliness is not felt in our lives and in the world we live, then we know that we are not doing our job well enough.
Every Friday night, when we make Kiddush, we say that we join G-d in creating His world, by bringing spirituality into it. אשר ברא אלוקים לעשות. That G-d created the world, to make. What does that mean, that G-d created a world “to make”? The answer is that G-d wants us to put the finishing touches on the world He created. He wants us to bring the message of Shabbat to the world. Shabbat is the meaning behind all Creation, the spirituality behind all matter and everything material. Shabbat is the Creation of meaning behind the Creation. How so?
Shabbat is number seven. All significant subjects in Judaism relate to the number seven. Both Pesach and Sukkot are festivals lasting seven days. Shavuoth, following the counting of the Omer for 49 days, is also the culmination of the seven-week period beginning with Pesach. Shmittah is the seventh agricultural year, and Yovel is the seventh shmittah, marking a total of 49 years, or seven times seven. There are three Patriarchs and four Matriarchs, together equaling seven. There are seven holidays from the Torah, Pesach, Shavuoth, Sukkot, Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, Shmini Atseret, and the last Moed is Tisha B’Av,קרא עלי מועד , a day that will be a holiday in the times of Mashiach. Why are all significant themes in Judaism related to number seven? Because six defines the dimensions of the physical world: in a three-dimensional cube, there is width, length and depth. Each measurement is defined by two points. The seventh dot is the inside. The meaning. Why the physical object exists.
The power that drives the universe is the power of meaning. If you lack motivation in any specific area, it is usually because one of three reasons: You do not believe in yourself in that area; You do not know how to do something that needs to be done in that area; You are not conscious of why that area has importance. “Can?”, “How?” and “Why?” Shabbat is a chance to meditate over the Why of the World, and to be a living sign of the purpose of Creation, to the entire Universe.
When did we get this gift of Shabbat? After experiencing suffering in Egypt. The Midrash tells us, ויעבדו מצרים את בני ישראל בפרך, the Egyptians forced B’nei Yisrael to do backbreaking labor. The word פרך in א”ת ב”ש, exchanging the letters for the letter that appears in their place when counting from the opposite end of the alphabet, you get the letters וגל which has the numerical value of 39 – the thirty-nine categories of work that are forbidden on Shabbat. Why is Shabbat something that we merited in Egypt, in slavery?
If you go through the parasha and you don’t pick up the clues, you can be missing the whole inside story. When G-d asks Moshe to warn Pharaoh that if he does not release the Jews, He will bring upon him the Plague of the Firstborn, G-d tells Moshe to mention the following introduction, and the reason why G-d is going to kill the Egyptians’ firstborn, measure for measure.ואמרת אל פרעה כה אמר ה’ בני בכרי ישרא-ל And you shall tell Pharaoh, ‘Thus says G-d: Yisrael is My firstborn son’ (4;22) Rashi writes that at this point, G-d signed the deal that Yaakov bought the firstborn rights from Esav.
What is the connection between the sale of firstborn rights by Esav to Yaakov to this point in time, when the Jews are in slavery, and they are about to be redeemed, and they need to go out of Egypt to serve G-d and bring Him sacrifices?
The answer is the story and heartbeat of the Jewish people. It is a long story, an old story, and a story that is not yet over. The story is a story of sacrifice. A heritage of sacrifice. At times, animal sacrifices in our Temple, and other times, sacrificing our bodies, our lives, our dreams, all for the love of G-d. The whole Amidah, the whole Shemonah Esreh, is a build-up of requests that lead to the ultimate request, that G-d accept our sacrifices. ואשי ישרא-ל ותפילתם מהרה באהבה תקבל ברצון ותהי לרצון תמיד עבודת ישראל עמך.
Yaakov wanted the firstborn rights from Esav, because he wanted the rights to bring the sacrifices. He wanted to be the continuation of the Brit bein Habetarim, the treaty of sacrifices between G-d and the Jewish people, passed from Avraham to Yitzhak. And he knew that if he would merit to be the continuation of G-d’s firstborn, not only to gain firstborn rights, but to shoulder responsibility, the torch, the banner of bringing spirituality to the world would be passed on to him. He wanted to be the firstborn who would be responsible for adding the finishing touches to the world, signing G-d’s signature on Creation. And that takes sacrifice. If Yaakov wanted those firstborn rights, his family needed to go through Egyptian bondage, exile and Exodus, for they needed to go through what G-d told Avraham, ידע תדע כי גר יהיה זרעך בארץ לא להם ועבדום וענו אתם ארבע מאות שנה. You must surely know that your children will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will be put to hard labor and subjected to suffering for four hundred years. It was in the decadence and the obscurity of Egypt that we merited to be בני בכורי ישרא-ל , G-d’s firstborn.
This is why, even though Esav gave up his portion by selling his firstborn rights for a pot of lentils, G-d did not call Ya’akov His firstborn, until this much-later point of the Jewish story. This is why Esav asked for the right to be buried in Me’arat Hamachpela, next to Leah, in Yaakov’s place, for he claimed that although he had given up his firstborn rights, Yaakov did not yet deserve them, and would not have earned them until he went through 400 years of slavery.
This is why G-d told Pharoah, “If you prevent My children from exercising their right to sacrifice to Me, I will smite your firstborn, measure for measure.” The Jews merited the title of G-d’s firstborn; the Jews are about sacrifice, about bringing G-dliness to the world, no matter how steeped in materialism the world may be. The word for sacrifice is קרבן, Korban. The root of that word is קרב, Karov, getting close. We bring G-dliness into the world through sacrificing material possessions and benefits for spiritual values.
I always wondered why the law is that a gentile who keeps Shabbat is punished by death. (Sanhedrin 58b) The Talmud quotes the passuk ויום ולילה לא ישבותו And day and night shall not rest (Bresheit 8;22) What does the passuk that is referring to Creation not stopping have any connection to the gentile keeping Shabbat? The answer is because the Jews merited the present of Shabbat, a time when we get a special closeness to G-d, for being His firstborn. This is why it is called נחלת יעקב, an inheritance for Yaakov. Only because we went through the pain and suffering of Egypt did we merit Shabbat, the gift of refraining from working the world, in order to infuse it with spirituality. Because only a Jewish Nation is willing to go through hard times, bringing G-dliness to the world, even in a place of immorality. Although there are gentiles who are spiritualistic, but their spirituality has nothing to do with Jewish spirituality. Judaism is the only religion where spirituality means elevating something material to something spiritual. For the gentiles, spirituality is the opposite of materialism. But Judaism is about partnering with G-d in making the World – even the material world – into a spiritual one.
Judaism is about living a Torah life, a G-dly life. Bringing G-dliness into life, and bringing spirituality into the material world and into the Mitzrayim that we find ourselves in.