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Last year, Parshas Toldos was the occasion of the pidyon haben (redeeming the firstborn) of the older of our twin grandsons. For my own family, this was a brand-new mitzvah, as our oldest children were twin girls. The firstborn rights play a prominent role in Parshas Toldos, where Yaakov purchases Eisav’s birthright.
Eisav returned from the field exhausted and famished, seeing Yaakov cooking lentil soup. Eisav asked Yaakov to serve him some of the red broth, with Yaakov replying, “Sure, I’ll give you the soup in exchange for your rights of the firstborn.” It’s a nice story, but purchasing firstborn rights was not so simple. Jewish law says one cannot sell a “davar shelo ba l’olam,” something that is not yet in his possession. The firstborn had the right to serve as a kohen in the Beis Hamikdash, which did not yet exist! If the seller did not yet have the opportunity to serve as a kohen, how was the sale legally binding?
Another legal problem: The firstborn’s birthright entitles him to prestige and honor, which is a davar she’ein bo mamash—something intangible. One cannot sell prestige with a classic transaction, as it is not a physical item. So how was the sale valid? The Ohr Hachaim explains that’s why Yaakov told Eisav “to swear” regarding the sale: The actual transaction would not bind Eisav, but the oath would require Eisav to keep his word regarding the transfer of the birthright.
Clearly, all these issues must have been on Yaakov’s mind for quite a while. Purchasing the bechora was a priority for Yaakov; otherwise, why would Yaakov’s first reaction to Eisav’s request for lentil soup be to sell it for the firstborn rights?
The birthright represents the spiritual purpose of the firstborn, both in terms of serving as a kohen and providing spiritual leadership. The Torah opens with the word “Bereishis,” in the beginning, but Rashi translates the word Bereishis using the Midrash’s interpretation, “The world was created for the purpose of the Reishis—the First.” The First refers to klal Yisrael together with the Torah, as they are referred to in various pesukim. The purpose of the creation of the world was for klal Yisrael to learn and keep the Torah.
One of the explanations for the intent of the mitzvah of pidyon habechor is that Hashem wants to impress on us that the purpose of raising a family is to serve Hashem. Therefore, the firstborn son is designated “holy for Hashem” and needs to be redeemed from physically, as opposed to spiritually, serving Hashem.
The Targam Yonosan ben Uziel tells us that when Eisav returned from the field tired and hungry, he had committed the cardinal sins of murder (killing Nimrod), adultery and idol worship. That day, Eisav demonstrated his goal and purpose was to live a hedonistic, self-gratifying life, disregarding the Torah’s commandments
The Gemara tells us that was the day Avraham passed away. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch points out that precisely on that day the descendants of Avraham chose whether to carry out the direction of their grandfather. Yaakov, who heard about the abhorrent actions of Eisav on that day, realized Eisav had discarded the spiritual world, choosing to live a life driven by temptations and desires. Therefore, Yaakov had to acquire the bechora that day to prevent it from being used for evil.
Beginnings matter: We determine what’s primary and act upon that determination. Thankfully, Hashem gives us many opportunities for “beginnings”: a new month, a new week and a new day. My wife and I always recall our years living in Eretz Yisrael when we would go to the Kosel each Motzei Shabbos to properly begin each new week. Here in the U.S., we had to find other ways to start out each week in a positive manner. Last Motzei Shabbos, for example, I participated in a father-son learning group filled with fathers and their eighth-grade boys. Even playing a nice family game, which helps bring the family closer, can show what’s primary in one’s life.
As Jews, we start each new day with the words “Modeh Ani,” thanking Hashem for waking us up and giving us another day to follow His Torah. As children of Yaakov, we are heirs to the lofty purpose of serving our Creator each day and embracing His Torah. Carpe diem—seize the day and its spiritual opportunities!