Bamidbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20
Once upon a time, a long time ago, every firstborn belonged to God. We were always supposed to give the first of all “our fruits” to God, literally.
Now, let’s go way back, back to Bereshit, back to the beginning. Why did God accept Abel’s over Cain’s offering? It’s because Abel gave of his best; Cain, of his worst. So, God accepted Abel’s offering and the rest is history.
Back to our parasha, Bamidbar. Who will keep up the work in the Tabernacle, our mobile Temple during our 40 years of wandering, and the Holy Temple? None other than the firstborns — all our firstborns.
But, in Bamidbar, God makes a decision. God will no longer ask for our firstborn; rather, God will replace the firstborns with the tribe of Levi, the Levites. The Levites will no longer have a territorial possession. They will get no inheritance in Israel; rather, the Levites will belong to the Temple. They will not earn a living; rather, they will partake of the Temple offerings.
This was not considered a punishment. This was not considered a sacrifice (no pun intended). This was considered a reward, to work in the service of God.
Now, you may ask, “What about the kohanim, the priests? Didn’t they also work for the Temple, for God?” Yes, but they too (the kohanim) were a part of the tribe of Levi. You see, Aaron and Moses were brothers; both were Levites. But only Aaron and Aaron’s children became kohanim.
So, according to this week’s Torah reading, “God spoke to Moses saying, ‘I hereby take the Levites from among the Israelites in place of all your firstborn, the Levites shall be mine instead.’ ”
When we give of ourselves, we still give the best of ourselves. But we no longer give our firstborn. So, if the Temple is ever rebuilt, then the Levites will have to go back to work. But, you’ll still be stuck with your firstborn.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)