Like many people, I recently spent time watching the Netflix special about Prince Harry and Megan. I also read parts of the book, “Spare” by Prince Harry. I do not want to pass judgment on the series or the book, or the Sussex’s reasons for publishing their grievances, it is obvious that the first born are given a privileged place in the hierarchy of the family, while younger siblings are often left to fend for themselves and maybe feel inadequate as compared to their older sibling.
This is evident in every generation of every royal family. Princess Margaret, the sister of Queen Elizabeth, who while she conducted her duties as a senior member of the royal family, was also a very troubled woman who struggled to come to terms with her position in the family hierarchy. We know so much about the first borns of royal families throughout history, but very little about their younger siblings. So, what is special about the first born?
Is the first Born Special?
Parashat Bo, whose climax is the plague of the firstborn, concludes with a law that is likewise connected to the firstborn: “Consecrate to Me every firstborn” (Exodus 13:2).
The firstborn once possessed a special status: The firstborn in the family received a double portion of the inheritance. Nowadays, not much of this special status remains, unless you are the firstborn in the line of succession to the throne.
What is the point of the firstborn’s special status? Are they more successful than their siblings? Scientific evidence shows that the firstborn of animals are more likely to die young than future offspring born to their mother. In the case of human beings, however, the matter is not so simple.
In the Torah’s narratives, only little importance is assigned to the firstborn. Various sources such as “Reuben, you are my firstborn: (Gen. 49:3) or “Israel is My son, My firstborn” (Ex. 4:22), do seem to indicate preference given to the firstborn, but more prominent in these narratives is the tension between the firstborn and he chosen son. Cain, does not distinguish himself with great character traits. The overwhelming majority of the Torah’s great personalities, with the exception of Abraham, are not firstborn: Isaac, Joseph, Judah, Moses, David, Solomon, and the list goes on and on.
On the other hand in the laws of the Torah, there is a clear preference given to the firstborn. The Torah assigns sanctity to the firstlings of pure animals, designating them as korbanot - sacrifices to the Lord. In other areas of the Torah we find mitzvot - commandments that reflect an aspect of the firstling or firstborn laws; for example: an omer or the first of the harvest, the fresh fruits of the soil, the first shearing of the fleece, etc.
In the case of the human firstborn, however, there is an unresolved question: How do we redeem the firstborn and what happens if he is not redeemed? Obviously he is not offered as a sacrifice and neither is he taken by a priest. vThe truth is, nothing happens to him. What then is the point of the firstborn? What is his role? Why is he given a special status, with a position of greater privilege and sanctity?
First is Best!
The answer to these questions lies not in the firstborns’ own essential worth but in the special feeling and affection that we have for things that are first.
I have a pomegranate tree in my backyard. This last year, for the first time ever, it gave fruit - the first fruit. We were so excited for the fruit to ripen so we could taste from it. When we deemed that the pomegranates were a deep red color, we cut one and opened it only to find that the taste of the seeds were bitter and inedible.The first fruit is never the choicest, but our connection to it is the deepest, and it is different from our connection to the fruit that comes after it.
This can be observed in actual life as well. Everything that a person creates gives him a feeling of amazement, but some of the most powerful feelings are bound up with one’s first creation. When Cain, the first child in the world is born Eve proclaims, “I have acquired a man together with God!” (Gen. 4:1). The names of second and third children are given but not explained and thereafter the Torah suffices with the statement, “and he begot sons and daughters” (Gen. 5:4). The first step a baby takes is not the most perfect step by any stretch of the imagination, yet it is that step that is remembered and all following steps will just be another step.
The first experience is not necessarily the best or most perfect. Its uniqueness is that we remember it in a special way; it is indelibly engraved in our memories. After all, there cannot be two firstborn children, and even if the firstborn does not turn out to be as successful as his or her siblings, they still hold a special place in our memories as the firstborn.
The issue of the firstborn’s uniqueness is not a quantitative question of greater or lesser feeling. Just as it is always possible to find a greater number, there can always be a greater emotion as well. However, it is impossible to find a number that is “more first”. The first possesses a certain quality that is immutable and ineradicable.
The lessons of the firstborn
The essence of the firstborn then teaches us what a person should do in his life, how he should devote his primary energy and creativity: “I therefore offer to God all male firstborn animals, and shall redeem all the firstborn of my sons” (Ex. 13:15). The things to which we have the deepest emotional attachment, which can never be replicated, are the very things that should be given to God. In every matter, one must scrutinize himself as to whether he truly gave “the choicest first fruits of his land” to God.
So, what about the dedication of the firstborn then? “Give Me the firstborn of your sons” (Ex. 22:28), that is, dedicate the first thing to God. Since there is some aspect of renewal each and everyday, this dedication can be fulfilled by devoting one;s first thought each day to God. For this reason we recite the Modeah ani (I give thanks) upon awakening every morning. Therefore, no matter what follows throughout the day, we always dedicate the first moment to God.
Approaching every undertaking as if it were an entirely new beginning, even if the reality is otherwise, is an extraordinarily difficult spiritual endeavor. It is incredibly challenging to become a new being, the likes of which never existed before. We must strive to approach the world each and every day through the fresh eyes of a child once again.
Firstborn is a state of mind. It is a way of looking at our lives and the world around us. The ability to be amazed at what we can accomplish each and every day. The ability to be in awe of God’s creation anew everyday. The ability to experience life as if it is renewed each and every day.
This essay is based in part upon the teachings of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.