Bamidbar: Redemption and Service

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

Shalom from the sunny and beautiful Hudson Valley, where there is
abundant woodland and wilderness- a perfect setting to write about
this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, or, literally, “in the
wilderness.” The book of Bamidbar [also the name of the first Torah
portion therein] opens up with the scene of the Israelites organizing
themselves for the long journey to the Land. Yet the focus on this
one-time event – organizing the people for their journey across the
wilderness- means that there are no explicit permanent mitzvot found
in this parsha, at least according to Sefer HaHinuch [a medieval
textbook of the commandments] and other commentaries.

However, our Conservative chumash [Torah commentary] does point out a
mitzvah connected to these verses:

“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 first-born in the
land of Egypt, I consecrated every first-born in Israel, man and
beast, to Myself, to be Mine, the Lord’s.’ ” [Bamidbar/ Numbers 3:11-13]

The mitzvah connected to these verses is the redemption of the
first-born, or pidyon ha-ben. You should refer to Shmot/Exodus 13 and
Bamidbar 18 to see the verses which explain things more explicitly,
but the general idea is that the first-born male of every regular
Israelite family is consecrated to God, and needs to be redeemed back
from service by a short ceremony with a descendant of the ancient
priests and five silver coins [or equivalent.]

The Levites- the descendants of Levi, one of the twelve tribes- do not
need to be redeemed, because they were the tribe which had special
duties of service in the ancient Temple, including the Levite family
which served as Kohanim, or priests. To put it another way, the first
born were supposed to serve, but the Levites served in place of the
first-born, and the redemption ceremony acknowledged this idea.

In our day, a pidyon ha-ben takes place only if the first born male is
not a c-section or preceded by a miscarriage or abortion, so after all
these conditions are met, it’s relatively infrequent. Yet pidyon
ha-ben can be understood as not only a reminder of the deep history of
our people, but also as teaching a powerful theological idea: that we
do not “own” our possessions- not even our children- but care for that
which is ultimately God’s. [Cf. Sefer HaHinuch on this mitzvah.]

“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. If this is
true of even our children, how much more true is it over other things-
our possessions, our land, our planet !

Even though pidyon ha-ben is not an “everyday” mitzvah, and even
though we can, and should, raise questions about a mitzvah which seems
to privilege the birth of one sex over another, we can still learn
what I believe the mitzvah is trying to teach: that ownership,
“power-over,” is an illusion, and that other people “belong” to God,
in the sense that the very purpose of a human life is service to
sacred ideals. That’s true not only of the first-born, but every
human, as we are all made “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the template of the
Holy One.

Shabbat Shalom,


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