Parasha Ba-Midbar

The kidnapping in Nigeria several weeks ago of 300 schoolgirls by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram has caused an international uproar and, a by now famous “Bring Back our Girls” Twitter campaign initiated by Michelle Obama. The mitzvah of Redeeming of the Captive — “Pidyon Shevuim” in the Hebrew –– is of such importance in Jewish life and law that the Shulkhan Arukh, the authoritative Code of Jewish Law, declares that “redeeming captives takes precedence over sustaining the poor and clothing them; there is no commandment more important than redeeming the captive.”  Predictably, there has been the criticism that the uproar over the kidnappings only serves to publicize the kidnappers to a world that had never before heard of them.  This publicity  has set the group in the minds of the Nigerian public as a terror group much to be feared, and, according to this thinking, plays right into their hands. Yet without the publicity, it is unlikely the Nigerian government would have display much effort to try to rescue the girls. We saw this dynamic play itself out between 2006 and 2011 in Israel with the Hamas kidnapping of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. His parents led a sustained publicity drive to pressure the government to make a deal with Hamas for his release, and they were criticized for thereby giving more power and publicity to Hamas. When he was finally released in 2011 in exchange for one thousand Arab prisoners held in Israeli jails, it was seen as a great victory for Hamas and enhanced their prestige at the expense of the PLO, Israel’s only conceivable partners for peace.  A passage in the Talmud reflects this tension between the imperative to pay ransom for the captive and the cost of doing so. “We do not redeem captives for more than their worth,” states this opinion, “so that enemies will not dedicate themselves to take other people captive.” In fact, over the past 54 years Israel has released 13,509 Arab prisoners in exchange for 16 Israeli soldiers – a ratio of 800 to 1.
But it is a different kind of Pidyon – redemption – that I want to highlight this evening. It is not the Pidyon Shevuim, the Redemption of the Captive, but the Pidyon HaBen, the redemption of the first born, that we find for the first time in our Torah reading this week.  The Pidyon HaBen is a ceremony that, to this day, traditional Jews perform for their sons who are the first born children of their mothers.  The origins of this custom go back to the very birth of the Jewish people in Egypt. For the tenth plague, G-d killed all of the first born sons of the Egyptians, but spared the first born sons of the Jewish people. In return for sparing the first born sons of the Jewish people, G-d declared that all of our first born sons would be dedicated to His service. It is almost as if the sparing of the first born of the Israelites imbued their lives with extra sanctity. Every family would have to send their son, if he were the first born, for lifetime service in the Sanctuary. However, with the building of the Golden Calf, the first born sons lost this privilege, as they participated fully in the worshipping of this idol. The tribe of Levi was, in fact, the only one who refrained from worshipping the Golden Calf. G-d decided that they, therefore, were the ones who were worthy of serving Him in the Sanctuary, that they alone maintained the holiness, the kedusha, to carry out the sacred tasks in the Tabernacle  in the Wilderness and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Unlike the Israeli soldier/Arab prisoner ratio of redemption 800 to one, in this case there would be a one to one correspondence – one member of the tribe of Levi would redeem one first born son. A census was taken. There were 22,000 Levites and 22,273 first born sons. Those extra 273 firstborns, for whom there was no Levite to redeem them, had to pay 5 shekels to the Priest for their redemption. Afterward, they were allowed to return to their families and resume their normal life.
This redemption, or “ransom”, of the first born is accomplished in our own day through a pidyon ha-ben ceremony on the thirty first day of the son’s life. It goes something like this: The child might be brought into the room on a silver tray, a custom that began in the middle ages. He might be surrounded by cubes of sugar symbolizing sweet things to come, and draped with some women’s jewelry, as a reminder that Jewish women refused to contribute their gold jewelry to the forming of the Golden Calf. The Kohen, or priest, asks the father if he wishes to redeem his son. The father affirms this and hands over five silver coins to the Kohen. The Kohen holds the coins over the child’s head and recites some blessings. Then everyone eats!
Reform and Reconstructionist Jews do not hold this ceremony, as they generally maintain that all Temple related rituals are irrelevant in our world.   Yet It seems that the deeper meaning of this ritual is both the celebration of the beginning of a new generation and the acknowledgement that our children are a gift from G-d, “on loan”, as it were, from the Kadosh Barukh Hu. May it serve to remind us that all children are precious to G-d and to their parents. May G-d have compassion upon the kidnapped girls of Nigeria, and may they be redeemed speedily and returned to the loving arms of their parents.   Shabbat Shalom