Parshat Bamidbar: Numbers 1:1-4:20; Hosea 2:1`-22.
We’ve now arrived at the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, “in the wilderness.” We refer to this book as Numbers. Both names are accurate since the narrative takes place in the desert, and there are many censuses taken through the story.
The Torah portion opens with the scene of the Israelites organizing themselves for the long journey to the Promised Land. Since the text is focused on preparation to cross the wilderness, which includes taking a census, there are no explicit permanent mitzvot found here. However, we can understand one of the commandments based on its connection with a verse in our Torah portion:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘I hereby take the Levites from among the Israelites in place of all the first-born, the first issue of the womb among the Israelites: the Levites shall be Mine. For every first-born is Mine: at the time that I smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated every first-born in Israel, man and beast, to Myself, to be Mine, the Lord’s’.”
The mitzvah connected to these verses is the redemption of the first-born, or pidyon ha’ben. The general idea is that the first-born male of every regular (non-Kohein) Israelite family is consecrated to God and needs to be redeemed from service by a ceremony with a descendant of the priests and five silver coins, or its equivalent.
The ceremony can be understood as not only a reminder of the deep history of our people, but also as teaching a powerful theological idea, namely that we do not “own” our possessions — not even our children.
“Redeeming” a child is a way of ritualizing the idea of stewardship; that we are entrusted with precious things, yet have a responsibility beyond our own personal preferences, desires and ambitions.
Even though pidyon ha’ben is not an “every day” mitzvah; and even though we can, and should, raise questions about a mitzvah that seems to privilege the birth of one sex over another, we can still learn what I believe the mitzvah is trying to teach. Ownership is only an illusion; and, in a spiritual sense, we all belong to God. That is true not only of the firstborn but of every human because we are all created in the holy image of God.
Rabbi Jason Miller officiates at bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies around the country — both in person and virtually. More information can be found at mitzvahrabbi.com.