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Thursday
Jan102019

THE ULTIMATE PIDYON HA’BEN

AN UNUSUAL BLESSING

The Mitzvah of Pidyon HaBen-Redemption of the First-Born requires a father to give five sh’kalim-silver coins to a Kohen 30 days after the birth of a first-born son. This commandment comes directly from the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage:

“…Every firstborn of man among your sons, you shall redeem… With a mighty hand G-d took us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. And it came to pass when Pharaoh was too stubborn to let us out, G-d slew every firstborn in the land of Egypt… Therefore… I will redeem every one of my firstborn sons.” (Exodus 13:13–15)

Before the father redeems his son, he recites a blessing which expresses his gratitude for having the opportunity to redeem his first-born.

There is an alternative, ancient version of the blessing for a Pidyon HaBen cited by the 13th century codifier of Jewish law, the Tur (Yoreh De’ah sec. 305). This blessing features a lengthy description of all that transpires during the months of gestation, beginning with the words “who sanctified the fetus in the womb of its mother.”

The Tur, quoting his father the Rosh, asks what connection a fetus has with the holiness and redemption of the first-born? That holiness does not devolve on the child until birth, as the Torah explicitly stipulates that this obligation commences with “The opening of the womb.”

Rabbi Yoel Sirkish, known as the Bach, answers that indeed the focus here is on the sanctity of the child even before it is born. One does not have to wait for birth to acquire sanctity. In the womb, our Sages tell us, a fetus is taught the entire Torah and a candle is kindled over its head, etc.

According to the Bach, the text of the extended blessing underscores that the sanctity of the first-born actually begins before birth, although that precious sanctity is not fully recognized until after birth.

However, a question can still be raised: why is this blessing connected specifically to a Pidyon HaBen?

THE DISTINCTION OF THE FIRST-BORN

To answer this question, we have to better understand the status of a first-born and why he, and only he, is in need of redemption.

From the Torah’s description of the obligation to sanctify and redeem the first-born it appears that it is a direct consequence of the Redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt, those whom G-d designated as His first-born. In addition, it is our way of showing gratitude to G-d for sparing the first born of the Jewish people even as He killed all the Egyptian first-born during the Tenth Plague.

G-d’s relationship with us is as a father to a child. We are G-d’s children; indeed, we are His first-born child, as Moses stated to Pharaoh: “Israel is My son, My firstborn.” (Exodus 4:22)

The entire process of Redemption underscored G-d’s role as a father, to the extent that even those who did not deserve to be liberated were liberated. If their relationship with G-d had been exclusively of a servant to his Master, most of the Jewish people then would have fallen short and might not have been liberated.

G-d redeemed them all because He was introducing a new dynamic: the relationship of a Father to a child. Regardless of the lowly spiritual state of the Jewish people at the time of the Exodus, G-d, as their father, showed compassion and unconditional love for them and allowed them to go free.

Only those Jews who actively refused to be liberated perished during the plague of darkness. The Rebbe explains (Likkutei Sichos, Volume 11) that they were denied liberation not because they were transgressors but because they refused to enter into the new Father-child relationship, which would have saved them regardless of their spiritual state and worthiness.

THE SPIRITUAL DYNAMIC OF A PIDYON HABEN

We can now get a glimpse into the spiritual dynamic of the Pidyon HaBen. When one’s first child is born, it transforms a person into a parent for the first time.

And since every physical phenomenon is a product of a parallel spiritual dynamic, it follows that the birth of a first-born reveals the Father-child relationship of G-d to the Jewish people. When this relationship is awakened, it generates the process of Redemption for G-d’s children, the entire Jewish people.

As long as that relationship lies dormant, we can languish in exile. When the father-child dynamic is awakened however, it unleashes a parallel parental bond between G-d and the Jewish people and their drive to Redemption.

This is why we perform the Pidyon HaBen Redemption ceremony: it highlights the intimate connection G-d has with us and invites the Redemption of all the Jewish people from their exile.

EXILE AND THE FETUS

In truth, this father-son relationship begins even before the child is born. When the child is in his mother’s womb he is taught the entire Torah. The fetus is graced with the potential to forge an intimate relationship with his earthly father who will teach him Torah after his birth while concomitantly forging a deep relationship with G-d, his heavenly Father. This dual relationship prepares him for his ultimate personal redemption and, through that, pave the way for the collective Redemption through Moshiach.

The same can be said for the Jewish people when they were slaves in Egypt. Even before their Exodus they forged the potential for that Father-child relationship. This idea is based on the way the prophet Ezekiel characterized the Exodus, as the birth of the Jewish people. Thus their bondage could be likened to their embryonic and fetal stage. Indeed, the Exodus is described as “taking a nation out of a nation” (Deuteronomy 4:34) which is similar to the way the Talmud (Sanhedrin 57b) describes a fetus as, “a person within a person.”

Indeed, when Pharaoh wanted the newborn boys killed by the midwives, commentators explain that, fearing Divine retribution, he actually wanted them to perform abortions, thinking that it would not be so severe a crime. However, his intentions were far more egregious because they were emblematic of his desire to abort the entire Jewish people, forcing them to remain forever subordinate to and subsumed within Pharaoh and Egypt. If Pharaoh had his way there would never have been the birth of the Jewish nation.

This is emblematic of the negative aspect of exile. Exile inhibits our ability to emerge from our potential state to the state of actuality. Exile does not let us be who we are destined to be. Exile is sly and not always persecution and oppression. Exile can even be a form of physical and spiritual paradise, just as the fetus has all of its physical needs provided for effortlessly. One can even experience spiritual bliss in Exile because of the Torah that we learn, akin to the Torah taught to a fetus. But, in the final analysis, a fetus is still not a full-fledged human being and is denied the possibility to fulfill its purpose in this world with its own resources and initiative.

In the best of circumstances, Galus prevents us from blossoming and expressing our full potential.

THE EXILE PARADOX

Yet, paradoxically, Galus has prepared us for the eventual birth and Final Redemption. Without Galus we would not have been able to generate the light needed to bring about the Redemption. 2,000 years of pain and suffering, alienation and confusion, prepares one for the greatest Divine revelation with the coming of Moshiach. In fact, the longer and more difficult the Galus, the more powerful and sublime will be the revelation of G-dliness in the Messianic Age.

We can now understand why the ancient blessing cited by the Tur for the Pidyon HaBen describes the sanctification of the fetus. If the birth of the first-born symbolizes the forging of G-d’s parental relationship with us and the dynamic of Redemption that flows from His fatherly love, then the sanctity of the fetus points to Redemption in its potential state during the days of Galus.

The message is thus a paradoxical one.

On the one hand, we do not recite the blessing for the Pidyon HaBen until the actual birth of the first-born (and then we wait 30 days to make sure the child is viable), although the fetus had already experienced sanctity. But that sanctity is incomplete; it is a Galus compromised form of sanctity because it involves confinement; the fetus has no independence.

On the other hand, when the first-born emerges and we recite the blessing for the Redemption of this child, thereby invoking the Redemption of the entire Jewish people, G-d’s first-born, we acknowledge that the process of Redemption had its genesis in the confining days of Galus.

Even today, as we wait with bated breath for the final and complete Redemption, every blessing we enjoy, material and physical, must be seen in the context of G-d’s love for us and His way of letting us savor a taste of Redemption.

This explains the version of the blessing in which the sanctity of the fetus is highlighted.

BLESSING NOT RECITED

However, that version of the blessing never gained widespread acceptance, if it was accepted at all. The accepted custom is not to mention the sanctity of the fetus in the blessing for the redemption of the first-born. This may be explained by acknowledging that although the longer the exile the greater the Redemption, we cannot endure exile any longer. We don’t want to extol the virtues of exile.

This has been especially true in recent times. We are so close to the actual Redemption; we must not allow ourselves to become complacent and make peace with the Galus. We shouldn’t put too much emphasis on the ephemeral virtues of Galus. We have to maintain focus less on the good we have in Galus and more on the goal of imminent Redemption.

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