Firstborn Conundrum (Bamidbar)
You can’t push anyone up the ladder unless he is ready to climb himself. -Andrew Carnegie
Already during the events of the Exodus, God demonstrates a special relationship with firstborn children. During the tenth plague to strike Egypt, the Plague of the Firstborns, God kills all of the Egyptian firstborns and spares all of the Jewish firstborns. God makes a point of repeating this fact and having us commemorate that event.
Furthermore, God’s saving of the Jewish firstborns creates an obligation on the part of those firstborns as well as all firstborns thereafter. The Jewish firstborn boys belong to God and have a higher obligation of servitude than those not born first.
It seems there was even a plan of their being a constant elite cadre of firstborns that would serve as priests in the Tabernacle and later on in the Temple, honored and eternal servants of God. However, the firstborns messed up. They proved unready for this special honor and distinction.
According to the Bechor Shor on Number 4:13, because of the sin of the Golden Calf, which included firstborns from most of the tribes of Israel, all of the firstborns then and thereafter were disqualified from the previously planned honorary role. In their place, God substituted the tribe of Levi, who had not participated in the sin of the Golden Calf. He elevated the Levites to take the role that had been previously assigned to the firstborns.
Additionally, to keep the Levites focused on their sacred ritual duties, the entire tribe of Levi did not inherit any land in Israel. They did not have the burden of owning land, of having to farm it or manage it. Their time was meant to be exclusively dedicated to the service of God and their brother tribes were directed to support the Levites with a tithe of their produce.
On the other hand, the firstborns, all of whom had been cast out from the Temple service were legislated as getting a double portion of their father’s inheritance compared to their non-firstborn brothers. The Bechor Shor implies that in a sense in the trade of the Levites for the firstborns in the Temple service, the firstborns received the Levites’ material possessions, hence the double portion.
May we all become worthy of divine service no matter our birth order or tribe.
To the safety of all of Israel.