I am a First Born. And I fast on the eve of Pesach because all the Egyptian firstborn were struck down by the tenth plague and I (metaphorically) survived! Usually being a firstborn is regarded as a privilege. But perhaps it ought not to be.
I have always had an issue with the preferential treatment firstborn are given. It is not just because we are expected to set a good example and take responsibility for the other siblings. Or the expectation that one should shoulder the burdens of succession. But I am offended by the very notion of hereditary privilege.
My objection applies to monarchies, priesthoods, and succession in family businesses. Not to mention Biblical laws of inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17) that of course can be circumvented if necessary. The historical record does not inspire confidence. Whether monarchs or priests, they all overwhelmingly failed or became corrupt, save for a few notable exceptions! Not that meritocracy, which I prefer in theory, were and are without their failures.
In most of the ancient world, there were two elites, the monarchy (with its adjunct aristocracy) and the priesthood. With layers of priority. In each, the first-born male was the automatic successor, by Divine Right. There were occasional women monarchs and powerful leaders, but these were the exceptions that proved the rule. The Palace and the Temple were the foundations of earlier societies and still are in our day in some societies. One represented the religious cults, the world of religions, and the other the military and political. They had different rules and privileges and obligations to the common people. The commoners were subservient, and everywhere women were subject to the authority and whims of the men. These differences were enshrined in the earliest legal systems such as the Hammurabi Code of Mesopotamia some four thousand years ago.
The remarkable feature of the Bible in its day was that it was the first to apply the same moral and civil laws ( in contrast to the ritual ones) to everyone. This is what it meant when the Bible calls the Israelites a nation of priests. We were all equal in the eyes of God if not others. Priests and Levites took care of religious functions and originally served as teachers, healers, lawyers, scholars, legal authorities, and what we call civil servants.
Initially, in its pre-Sinai iteration, the Bible implied that it was the firstborn who were expected to fulfill these roles. And even when priests took over, the firstborn were still expected to join them. And this is why the Prophets described the whole of the nation as God’s firstborn. The plague of the firstborn illustrated why they were so important and why they were the ones picked to serve. It was like saying that if you were spared a catastrophe, you should see this as placing an obligation on you to thank God by paying back something to the community. But the next stage was to transfer such obligations to Priests because ordinary families could not always afford or were not willing to lose their firstborn to public service. There was an option to redeem them. Which custom continues to this day as Pidyon HaBen, the Redemption of the Son. Even so, originally those who wanted to could send their sons to serve in the public service, as the Biblical story of Samuel illustrates.
All cultures have moved on from their earlier beginnings. From Tabernacles to Temples to Study centers and Synagogues. When Moses laid down that one shouldn’t steal, he did not think of computers or iPhones. That does not mean one cannot learn a principle of law applicable today from what was said then. Some change has taken place even if one might argue not enough. Nevertheless, the core constitution of the Torah has exerted a degree of consistency and resistance to pressures. This was why it never made sense to treat the Written Law without an Oral law. Otherwise, we would still be killing witches and chopping off hands, as some still do.
When it came to politics or political systems the Torah offered different options. Divine Appointments like Moses and Joshua, kings, priests, judges, prophets, and scholars. Different times different circumstances, and different kinds of leadership. Some hereditary and some meritocratic. The options were there.
It does not make any sense to think that something written thousands of years ago should be understood the same way now as it was then. People in those days thought and experienced life very differently. Kings and Queens were regarded as gods. Natural events were thought to be supernatural. The sun moved around the earth. No historian before the Romans thought you had to record facts accurately or what we call historical. But we can ask what lessons can we learn that help us now cope with life and be better people.
No system then or now has proven to be perfect. We must continually try to modify and improve without throwing out the baby and the bathwater. Just as the role of the firstborn went through different stages, it may be time to treat now to treat them all the same way and allow individuality and talent to be the decider.
In the meantime, perhaps we should focus on our political leaders. Wherever they are, making a right mess. If only we had ones who are capable, honest, incorruptible, and fit for the job. So let’s just focus on us and our families over Pesah and have a jolly good time.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach ( and I’ll be back when its all over)