G-d tells Moshe, “I have separated the Levites from the [other] Israelites so that they may take the place of all the firstborn (who initiate the womb) among the Israelites, and the Levites shall be Mine. This is because every firstborn became Mine on the day I killed all the firstborn in Egypt. I then sanctified to Myself every firstborn in Israel, man and beast alike, [and] they shall remain Mine. I am G-d” (3:12-13).
In Shemot 13:2, G-d told Moshe, “‘Sanctify to Me every firstborn that initiates the womb among the Israelites. Among both man and beast, it is Mine.’” In Shemot 13:12-13 He told Moshe, “You will then bring to G-d every [firstborn] that initiates the womb. Whenever you have a young firstling animal, the males belong to G-d. Every firstling donkey must be redeemed with a sheep. If it is not redeemed, you must decapitate it. You must [also] redeem every firstborn among your sons.”
Rashi’s comment — that the firstborns lost their job on account of their involvement in the Golden Calf — stems from the Midrash, which notes that “originally the firstborns were supposed to do the service, as we see from Shemot 24:5 (which can be translated that the ‘firstborns of Israel’ were sent to the mountain), but once the firstborns participated in bringing offerings before the calf … G-d disqualified them from the service in the Mishkan.” (This is a reference to Parshat Eikev, Devarim 10:8.)
While I don’t have a good explanation for why G-d seems so obsessed with firstborns, it is worthy to note that one of the first things Moshe is instructed to tell Pharaoh is “So said G-d: My son, My firstborn, is Israel.”
One of my teachers once explained that the firstborn turns a regular person into a parent. It is not just a life-changing moment, it is a status-changing moment. Maybe G-d’s “need” for a firstborn (Israel) is a macrocosm of the need for individual firstborns to be consecrated.
The status conferred on firstborns by dint of birth puts them into a realm of needing to take responsibility for their behaviors and being cognizant of the consequences of their poor decisions.
Seforno notes that the Israelite firstborns were worthy of suffering the same fate as the Egyptian firstborns in Egypt. When you live in a country and conduct yourself in the same manner as the people of that country, you are subject to the same fate as that country. If Egypt’s firstborns were to die, by all rights Israel’s firstborns were to die.
But G-d had an ulterior motive. And so He saved them, through sanctifying them and making them set aside to do the work and service of G-d. This is why their redemption was required and recorded so soon after their leaving Egypt, to demonstrate their sanctified status.
However, as Shach on the Torah (Rabbi Mordechai HaKohen) records, it was not as simple a move as just sanctifying the firstborns. G-d had said, “Every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die,” and had not qualified the statement with a declaration of “except for the firstborns of Israel.” This gave the mashchit (the destroying force) and the angel of death an opening to take the souls of Israel’s firstborns.
G-d sanctifying the Israelite firstborns thus gave an added reason, perhaps the only reason, why the firstborn Israelites could not die during that plague.
Normally, we have a principle of “Maalin b’kodesh v’ein moridin” — things can be elevated in their holiness status, never lowered. Around Pesach time, I shared the story of how after Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya was deposed as Nasi, there was a debate whether he could continue to lecture in the Nasi slot. They opted not to deny him the teaching slot, only to give him less frequent opportunities to teach. Why? Because he could not be brought down from the holiness he had been given.
If this is the case, how could the firstborns have been lowered in status to no longer serve in the Mishkan? Rabbi Mordechai HaKohen explains that the raising in status was a feint — it was for a limited time, to allow for the firstborns to be spared during the plague.
Perhaps in this light, the idea of redeeming the firstborns is a forever tribute to being spared at that time.
But there is one deeper message of the specific change from the firstborns to the Levites, as explained by Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor. “Those who service the Mishkan are unworthy of an inheritance, so they can be designated and dedicated to serving G-d. Since the firstborn received a double portion of the inheritance, G-d took the Levites to replace them, and also commanded that the Levites not receive an inheritance in the land.”
First we have the notion that the firstborns were never really consecrated to work in the Mishkan. Then we have the idea that their consecration status was only conferred upon them to save them from the plague in Egypt. Now we see they never could have served in the Mishkan. As firstborns, they will have too much property to concern themselves with; they could never properly devote their time to the Mishkan service.
Was G-d protecting the firstborns, or is there something to the idea that not every person can adequately “do it all”?
Many of us are trying to balance so much — being a parent. Being a devoted son or daughter. Holding down a job. All the volunteer work. All the hobbies. Trying to be a learned Jew. It’s a lot.
Were G-d to only give us a pass on the things we have a harder time handling, wouldn’t life be so much easier?
Probably. But would it be as fulfilling?