`This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, contains a lot of excitement. Moses receives the tablets containing the ten commandments, finds the people worshiping the golden calf, breaks the tablets, reprimands the people and goes off to try to mitigate God’s anger and create a new set of tablets. That’s the part that’s easiest to focus on, but I’m thinking about a few short verses, after all the excitement has calmed down. God agrees to renew the covenant with the Israelite people, and promises to continue performing miracles for them, the likes of which have never been seen. God warns them not to take on the customs, and gods of the land they are going to, and then enumerates the holidays they are to observe, starting with Passover. And in the midst of the instructions on Passover (Ex. 34:19-20), comes the commandment “Every first-born belongs to me.” Kosher animals are to be sacrificed, and first born children must be redeemed with money.
These verses are the source for pidyon haben, the redemption of the first-born one month after birth, a custom many Jews today are not aware of or are not halachically, according to Jewish law, required to do for one technical reason or another. This custom can seem, as do many commandments in this part of the book of Exodus, like an antiquated part of the priestly system, lacking relevance in today’s world. It can seem unfair, giving a particular honor to the first child at the expense of later-birth-order children. It can seem crass assigning a monetary value to a human being. But I like it. I like it because, like so many of the rituals around birth and early childhood, it has more to do with the parents than the child, and I like what it says about parenthood. The milestone of the birth of a first child is a tremendous change in the life and the identity of a parent. It makes sense to acknowledge that change.
But what is this mitzvah doing here? Traditional commentators say that it occurs here in connection with Passover because the plague of the first born, where all the first-born of Egypt died, did not affect the Israelites. So, Israelite first-borns owe their lives to God and need to be redeemed. Its a good answer, but I see something else as well.
This Torah portion deals with an unbelievable error in judgement on the part of the Israelite people. Having just been freed from slavery, walked across dry land in the middle of what had moments before been a sea, and experienced the giving of the ten commandments directly from God, they become nervous at Moses’ prolonged absence and decide the need to take matters into their own hands and make themselves a new god. How can people who have so much recent experience of astonishing miracles lose faith? How can they forget the most powerful experiences of their lives? Their current state of uncertainty, of feeling untethered and not having a leader to answer their questions immediately, overwhelms them and they seem to forget. They have begun a new stage of life as a people and a new relationship with God, but their fear undermines their ability to live that new reality.
A new parent has similarly been through what is most likely the most powerful experience of her life. She has clearly experienced a miracle first hand, and has a constant reminder of that miracle. And she can also feel overwhelmed and uncertain who to turn to for support and encouragement. The sense of the miraculous can fade. The custom of pidyon brings forward the awareness that this child, even a month after the experience of birth is still a miracle, and the period of adjustment to the new normal is ongoing, and that the relationship, and the new normal require attention and work.
There is a linguistic link as well, between repairing the rift in the relationship between God and the Israelites, and the custom of redeeming the first-born. God teaches Moses to repair the rift by calling on God as El Rachum, Compassionate God. The hebrew term for first born is more literally “the opener of the womb” peter-rechem. Rechem, womb and Rachum, merciful come from the same root. The exodus from Egypt is often described as the birth of the Jewish people. After this experience, the relationship changes to one suffused with rachamim, compassion. It is stronger than mistakes made out of fear or habit, stronger than anger and frustration. A first born child opens not only his mother’s rechem, womb, but also his parents’ rachamim, compassion, creating a relationship stronger than all the fears and uncertainties, nights of lost sleep, stained clothes, and crayon on the walls.
The custom of pidyon reflects a fundamental shift, in day-to-day life and in identity. This shift may not happen smoothly or without moments of panic. But it is one that we recognize as valuable, and wouldn’t turn back for anything. And recognizing it helps draw our attention to the positive and reminds us to reach out to family, community and the source of miracles.