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Ambivalence about Privileging the First Born

Sermon by Rabbi Aron

Saturday, November 22, 2014

In the ancient world it was obvious that the first born should receive certain extra gifts and privileges. That is the background to the competition between Jacob and Esau. It began at birth with Jacob trying to be the first born, pulling desperately on Esau’s heel. It continues in Jacob’s purchase of the birthright and the theft of his father’s blessing.

There are places in the Torah where the rights of the first born are acknowledged, particularly in legal texts. The first born got a double portion of the inheritance something which Deuteronomy reminds us must be the case, even if the father favored the children of a later wife. The first born animals were especially appropriate for gifts to God and originally it was the first born men who would serve as priests.

The Talmud discusses the seeming unfairness of the double portion of the first born. After all the first son might be wicked and the second son righteous. Is it fair that the unworthy son inherits a double portion and takes on the mantle of the family? They came to terms with this by positing that sometimes an unworthy son had worthy grandsons, as happened with some of the Kings of Israel, and sometimes a worthy son had unworthy grandchildren. They used the example of Abraham for the first, who was the son of Terach an idol maker, yet became the first monotheist. For the second they looked at some of the sons of David, a favorite of the Bible, but with serious family problems.

I might posit that God was not satisfied with that argument. In the book of Genesis, the first born is rarely the hero. Isaac is Abraham’s second son, Jacob is the younger of the twins, and Reuben, the first born of his father Jacob, is portrayed as a ne’er do well. He is totally eclipsed both by Joseph, Jacob’s favorite, and by Judah, who would ultimately be the ancestor of the kings of Israel.  While it is the first born of the Egyptians who are slain, Moses is not a first born. Neither Saul nor David nor Solomon are first born and they become the rulers of the people. In fact the Torah goes out of its way to present David as the youngest and smallest of many brothers, and he is most beloved by God.

Why is the Torah so down on firstborns? It has been suggested that God is trying to show independence in not being limited by the customs of the people. God can choose whom God will choose. This may have been particularly important in Biblical times as the Egyptians attached great significance to primogeniture and birthright.

It is also a message to each of us, even today, not to feel limited by our external status. Perhaps we are the last born, or the smallest, or in some other way lacking in what the world seems to respect. That does not mean that we are any less precious to God, or any less likely to have an important mission in our life.

I was raised on the story of the littlest rabbit, who was bullied by all the bigger rabbits, until finally one of the big rabbits sticks up for him and chases the bullies away. Seasons pass and the rabbit, who still calls himself, the littlest rabbit,  continues to grow, only he hasn’t really noticed. Then the day comes when bullies attack a little rabbi standing nearby- and he realizes that it is his time to be a big rabbit and chase the bullies away.

On Tuesday night we will be reading a passage from our rabbinic literature as part of our Thanksgiving service. Interestingly it is also found in the New Testament. It reads: I call heaven and earth to witness:

Gentile or Jew, man or woman, manservant or maidservant –

all according to our deeds does the spirit of God rest upon us.

At that time your status being free or slave, male or female, a member of the Jewish community or not, set the course of your life in many significant ways. Teaching that God saw beyond those externals was a radical liberating teaching, reminding each person of their potential in life.

Cary, though you and Michael experience your fair share of sibling rivalry,  I don’t think that you are too worried about his receiving a double portion of your parents property. I hope that you are feeling confident in what you have to offer the world, and in being blessed by God just as you are.



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