From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
“Sanctify to me every firstborn”
—Sh’mos (13, 2)
The money or the box? Is the rabbi turning TV quiz-show host? Has he become a gambling man? Believe it or not, this rabbi is talking about what any traditional rabbi talks about—the parashah. The title, “The Money or the Box,” really does relate to the tenth plague G-d visited upon Egypt prior to the Exodus.
The final, devastating plague of the firstborn saw the Israelite firstborn spared. Therefore, they are eternally indebted to G-d for their very lives. Ever since then, the firstborn of Israel “belong to G-d.” And that’s why this parashah gives us the mitzvah of pidyonha’ben, the Redemption of the Firstborn.
In a tradition that is practiced to this day, when the firstborn is a male, the father and a Kohen—who as a priest in the Temple would serve as the Almighty’s agent—perform a redemption ceremony after the child has passed his first month of life. This is known as pidyonha’ben. (The reason the pidyonha’ben is not nearly as well-known as the bris is because it is the exception rather than the rule. It only applies to the firstborn and only when the delivery is natural—not by caesarian section—and if either father or mother is of Kohen or Levi families, they are exempt from the procedure.)
In this quaint and curious ceremony, a fascinating dialogue takes place between father and Kohen. The child is brought in and the father makes the following declaration to the Kohen: “My Israelite wife has borne me this firstborn son.” Whereupon the Kohen asks the million-dollar question, “Which would you rather have—your firstborn son or the five silver shekels you are obligated to give me for his redemption?”
The gathered crowd waits in suspense to hear the father’s response. What will he choose? To keep the five silver shekels and give the hassles of daybreak diaper changes and future school fees to the Kohen, or will he keep his child and hand over the shekels? Thankfully, Jewish fathers have always made the correct choice, albeit sometimes with a little gentle prodding from their wives.
Is this not ridiculous? “The money or the child?” This is a serious question? I mean, what normal father is willingly going to give away his child to save a few bucks? What is the point of this discussion? Why engage in ancient, obsolete rituals that have no relevance today?
The answer is that it is relevant. “The money or the child” means much more than just here and now at the ceremony on day 31 of this boy’s life. The Kohen is asking the father a serious question. He is really asking this: “Throughout your child’s life, what will be most important to you, uppermost in your mind? Will it be money and materialism, acquiring more status symbols than your friends, or will it be your children and your family life? Where will your priorities lie? Will you slave away to build up your business and become an absentee dad? And you, Mom, will you while away the days drinking cappuccino and doing your nails or will you personally be involved in raising your children, teaching and nurturing them? That is the Kohen’s question. And every father should think carefully before he answers that question—hopefully, in the affirmative.
So the next time you’re invited to attend a pidyonha’ben ceremony and you hear that seemingly preposterous question being asked, don’t laugh and don’t snicker. Don’t grimace and don’t even giggle. Be dead serious. Because a Jewish father is about to decide the future for his family and, indeed, for our people. Let’s hope he makes the right choice.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.