Jewish Journal


June 22, 2000

The Firstborn

Parashat Behaalotecha


I remember the moment I was in the doctor's office staring at the screen. The technician was pointing to the monitor where I could see the heartbeat of the fetus growing inside of me. I saw it pulse and was both delighted and awestruck. Then I asked, "Does it have the same heartbeat as I do?" She smiled and looked over to me. "No, it's its own being, separate from you."

Wow, that hit me. Of course it has a different heartbeat than I do, but how could it? I'm carrying this fetus inside of me; it's me. Or is it me?

Once the moment of birth occurs, the separation is much more evident. Or is it? Not only do we want the best for our children, but if the "best" happens to match our own views of success, then all the better.I was hit with this reality on the 30th day following my daughter's birth. We held a pidyon habat (redemption of the firstborn daughter) in our home. Traditionally done for the firstborn son, we changed some of the language to make it gender appropriate. In this ceremony, based in part on this week's Torah portion, we redeem, or "buy back," our daughter from the Kohanim, the priestly class, who are legally entitled to keep the firstborn child of every Jewish family for service to God. "For every firstborn among the Israelites, man as well as beast, is Mine [God's]. I consecrated them to Myself at the time that I smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt" (Numbers 8:17). In planning for the ceremony, I had never really contemplated the meaning of this event until just before our guests arrived. Essentially, by having a pidyon habat, my husband and I were agreeing to a concept that I'm not sure I was ready to accept.

I felt a sense of separation and disappointment when we announced that we wished to redeem our daughter from God's possession. I realized that by redeeming my daughter from God, I was, in essence, recognizing that God owned her life from the start and we only had her on loan. In addition, by redeeming her from a specific duty of work for God, I was acknowledging that she would choose her own destiny. And then the disappointment set in. I admitted that my heart would jump for joy if my daughter decided to pursue the same career that I have chosen, yet I stood in front of friends and family saying that she could do and be whatever her heart desired. I recalled the heartbeat story and smiled, admitting that I never controlled her in the first place.

As parents, many of us believe that we can try to shape the direction of our children's lives. If Jewish life is important to us we can celebrate Shabbat and the holidays at home, read Jewish books to our children, take them to Jewish cultural events and regularly talk about God's presence in our everyday lives. We hope and pray that these values, customs and conversations will make a lasting impression and form memories of joy and holiness for our children. Then we hope and pray that when they grow up they will find their own meaning in our tradition and choose to pass it on to the next generation in their own way. But in the end we can only hope and pray. Ultimately their destiny is in their own hands and God's.

Perhaps God first reminded us that God owned all the firstborn children and then commanded us to redeem them (Numbers 18:15) as a subtle way for parents to begin the separation process from the very start. How wise, and how difficult.

Michelle Missaghieh is rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

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