Parshat Bamidbar: Numbers 1:1-4:20; I Samuel 20:18-42.

The smiting of the Egyptian firstborn that began on the eve of the Exodus comes full circle this week.

This portion recounts how God removed the Israelite firstborn from the honored position as His chosen servants, replacing them with the tribe of Levi.

Rabbi Eric Grossman Jackie Headapohl | Detroit Jewish News

Until then, the Israelite firstborn had been God’s own possession, favored and beloved. Now, they are stripped of their status and relegated to the ranks of common Israelites.

What had they done to warrant such an ignoble demotion? What terrible sin had the first sons of Israel committed to have earned this degradation?

The text is silent. Nor does the Torah provide any indication as to what entitled the Levites to the promotion to the inner circle of God’s court. Firstborn and Levites alike must have been baffled by this sudden switch.

The Bible’s assault on primogeniture, the right of the firstborn, begins in Genesis. Cain, the original firstborn, is spurned by God when the Lord rejects his sacrifice in favor of brother Abel’s.

From then on, story after story recalls how the eldest son is deprived of his natural birthright. Ishmael is passed over in favor of Abraham’s second son, Isaac; Isaac’s son Jacob will usurp Esau’s blessing. Fourth-born Judah will become the forefather of Israel’s monarchy while firstborn Reuben will disappear into obscurity.

Psychologists suggest that firstborn children are more responsible than their junior counterparts, providing a ready explanation of God’s initial choice of the firstborn to be His servants. Charged with ensuring the continuity of Israel’s religious life, God elected the most conscientious candidate.

Alternatively, the Levites’ temperament was not anchored in responsibility, but passion. Fierce and fiery, they fought the worshippers of the Golden Calf, taking up arms against their own people to defend God’s honor when it was violated in Shechem.

Moses, too, was a zealous Levite who confronted Pharoah “with hot anger” and shattered the Ten Commandments “in burning rage.”

To whom should be entrusted the task of ensuring Jewish continuity, the steady and dependable or the intense and impassioned? Perhaps the Torah is teaching us that different times call for different leaders. Forty years of steady leadership united the former fragmented slaves into a cohesive people. As that era of bondage and wandering drew to a close, a new frontier arose before the nascent people of Israel.

Set against the frontier of a new land and identity, the challenge of a new kind of conquest and growth was about to begin. This frontier demanded leaders capable of lighting the people’s way with inextinguishable passion for, and commitment to, God’s truths.

It appears that God reconsidered whom he wished to lead His people into this new existence.

Rabbi Eric Grossman was the head of school at Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield. This article originally appeared in the JN on May 13, 2010.

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