Here is a Passover puzzle I was trying to solve today at our siyyum (completion of a section of Torah study) to undo the fast of the first-born (that’s a whole other story). It is the last teaching of Massechet Pesachim, the Talmudic book about Passover.
Rav Simlai attended a pidyon ha-ben, the ceremony for “redeeming” a 30-day-old first-born baby boy from a kohen (priest). Background: First-born Jewish boys are considered to have a special obligation to the Divine, because their lives were in danger on the night of the first Passover, the prelude to the escape from Egypt, when the tenth plague struck and killed all Egyptian first-born. Their survival having been a special gift and mystery, they are presumed to belong to the Divine, and the priests are entitled to draft them into religious service in the Temple. The Torah says that in practice, members of the tribe of Levi are substituted for the first-born, but as part of this the father of each first-born has to redeem the baby from the Levite priests. We actually still have this custom, of paying a few symbolic coins to a kohen in a special ritual, even though there is no Temple where the boy would grow up to serve.
So back to Rav Simlai, who is a guest at a pidyon ha-ben, and the other guests recognize that there’s a rabbi in the house so he is asked a question. There are two blessings recited at the ceremony. One goes with fulfilling the mitzvah, the obligation, and is said by the father. The other is the She-he-chayanu, a blessing of gratitude to the Divine for “giving us life, keeping us alive, and bringing us to this day.” Rav Simlai is asked who should say this – the father because he’s doing a mitzvah, or the kohen because he’s getting some money in his pocket for probably not a hard day’s work (that part is my editorializing).
Well Rav Simlai didn’t have a ready answer, and like I imagine many a rabbi at a party, didn’t have all his books with him, not realizing he’d be on the clock. So he excused himself (or maybe he waited until the party was over) and headed over the House of Study, where he got an answer: The father says the blessing. The Talmud concludes that such is the law – and that’s it, the end of Tractate Pesachim.
So I wonder why this is the last word about Passover and what it means. Well one easy equation is that redeeming each child is a microcosm of the redemption of all Israel. Just as the father buys back the child’s freedom, so too God bought us back into freedom. God had told Moses, after all, to tell Pharaoh that “Israel is My first-born son.” So this father, as he starts his family, is being reminded not to take his son’s freedom for granted, nor really his life, because after all the first-born experienced even more danger the night of the first Passover than everyone else. This is a way to bring the idea that each of us left Egypt to a very personal level; it’s not just history and it’s also not just political and social in scale.
The only problem with that is: If father=God and child=Israelites, who does the priest stand for? Surely the priest is not like Pharaoh! Surely if the boy were to be unredeemed and left at the service of the kohen, this would a life completely unlike slavery to Pharaoh.
Best I can do is this: In Egypt, the choice was stark between slavery and freedom. For this father, there is a true choice between two destinies of service: one in direct official service to God, and one is some other holy way that this father and family will have responsibility to work out. That’s what freedom means. It’s more than an alternative to the horror of slavery. It’s the opportunity and responsibility to provide multiple paths of goodness and holiness for our children, to see in our own lives that there are multiple paths. If a path that comes with some label of goodness – “follow this arrow toward the priest who will guide you to a life of service” – if that isn’t your path, it’s not enough to say I can’t do that, I can’t be that. The duty of the parent, and of the generation more generally who welcomes any child into the world, is to help them look over the other paths, the ones that aren’t so obviously labeled as “service.”
So indeed, the father says the blessing of She-hechaynau, thank you for bringing us to this point, where it’s my responsibility to help this child learn how to choose freely among the many good choices, to find the path that’s right. I gladly pay a few coins for that privilege, for having the power of creating freedom for this child, the way the Divine did and does for all of us.
A zissen Pesach – a sweet Passover to all who are celebrating!