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Torah Attitude: Parashas Bo: Donkey business
There are a number of mitzvos (commandments) that we shall fulfill to remind us of the exodus from Egypt, such as tefillin, and the redemption of the firstborn male. One very rare mitzvah obligates the Jewish owner of a firstborn male donkey to redeem it with a sheep, that he must give to a Kohein. G'd miraculously brought about that 54 million donkeys (600,000 x 90) "showed up" to carry the Jewish people's belongings out of Egypt. The Egyptian firstborn are compared to donkeys. The Jewish firstborn were not worthy to be saved. When the Egyptian firstborn were killed, it saved the Jewish firstborn from annihilation. As we discuss and commemorate the miracles at the exodus from Egypt, it strengthens our belief in the miracles we will experience at the final redemption.
In this week's parasha G'd instructs Moses to teach the Jewish people the laws of the Pesach offering, that they had to slaughter the day before they left Egypt, as well as the laws of the Festival of Pesach. Towards the end of the parasha, we find a number of mitzvos (commandments) that we shall fulfill to remind us of the exodus from Egypt, such as tefillin, and the redemption of the firstborn male.
One of these mitzvos obligates the Jewish owner of a firstborn male donkey to redeem it with a sheep, that he must give to a kohein (see Shemos 13:13). Nowadays, this is a very rare mitzvah, as, even in Israel, there are not many Jewish farmers who raise donkeys. This past Sunday, for the first time since the exodus from Egypt, a firstborn donkey was redeemed in Toronto. Rabbi Eliahu Zrihen, Rav of Congregation Ateret Hatorah Toronto, has in the last few years spent much time, effort and money to acquire a female donkey that could give birth to a firstborn male. Recently, his hard work bore fruit. In the presence of a huge crowd, headed by many prominent rabbis, he redeemed the newborn donkey with a sheep. The designated Kohein was Rabbi David Pam, Rav of the Zichron Shneur Shul in Toronto. It was beautiful to witness so many people, adults and children, who turned out to participate and witness the fulfillment of this rare mitzvah.
90 special donkeys
The redemption of the firstborn donkey is unique, as it is the only non-kosher animal that the Torah obligates us to redeem. The Talmud (Bechoros 5b) asks why does the firstborn donkey need to be redeemed, more than a firstborn horse or camel? The Talmud answers that this is to commemorate that at the exodus from Egypt, every family had at least 90 special donkeys to carry all the silver and gold they had been instructed to collect (see Shemos 11:2). The Sforno (Shemos 13:14) explains that since the Egyptians urged the Jewish people to leave immediately, they had no time to pack their things on wagons, as would have been the norm. G'd miraculously brought about that 54 million donkeys (600,000 x 90) "showed up" to carry their belongings.
Egyptians as donkeys
Rashi (Shemos 13:13) adds a deeper insight and writes that the Egyptian firstborn are compared to donkeys. In order to understand Rashi' comment, we must remember that many nations have animals as national symbols. This has a Biblical source. For example, Daniel had a dream (Daniel 7:3-6) where he saw three animals, a lion, a bear and a leopard. Our sages explain that these animals correspond to the three nations that ruled over the Jewish people and exiled us: the Babylonians, the Persians and the Greeks. The next night he had a second dream where he saw a very scary unidentified animal that corresponds to the Romans (see Maharal in his introduction to Ner Mitzvah). Similarly, the Prophet Ezekiel (23:20) describes the Egyptians as donkeys, and the Prophet Jeremiah (50:17) describes the Jewish people as a lone sheep.
Jewish firstborn not worthy
In regards to the mitzvah to redeem every firstborn male, it says (Shemos 13:2): "Every firstborn … among the Children of Israel … is mine." Rashi explains that G'd here states that when He killed the firstborn Egyptians, He acquired the firstborn Jewish males. This is explicitly described in Parashas Behacloscha (Bamidbar 8:17) where it says: "For every firstborn of the Children of Israel … on the day that I struck every firstborn in the Land of Egypt, I sanctified them for Myself." The Sforno (ibid) explains that G'd sanctified the Jewish firstborn to save them from the plague of killing all firstborn. For at the time of a plague one needs special merits to be saved and the Jewish firstborn were not worthy to be spared. As Ezekiel says (20:8): "And they rebelled against Me … and they did not leave the Egyptian idols, and I contemplated to let My anger flow over them in the land of Egypt."
Every morning we say in Baruch Sheamar: "Blessed is the One Who redeems and saves." It seems that this is a reference to what happened to the Jewish firstborn at the plague of the firstborn, and other similar situations. As Isaiah describes (43:3): "For I am HASHEM Your G'd … your Saviour. I provided the Egyptians … as a redemption instead of you." Rashi explains that when the Egyptian firstborn were killed, it saved the Jewish firstborn from annihilation. The Mahari Caro elaborates on this and says that the Egyptians, that are called donkeys, were killed instead of the Jews, that are referred to as sheep. Unlike the usual way, says Mahari Caro, where the sheep redeems the donkey, G'd, in his great love for the Jewish people, redeemed the sheep with the donkey. As it says (ibid): "Because you were dear in My eyes … and I loved you." This was the only time G'd conducted Himself in this way. As Isaiah continues, "Therefore I often provide others instead of you." Obviously, G'd does not kill one person for another, unless that person has his own faults for which he is punished. However, at the same time that the person is punished for his own shortcomings, he is also used as a replacement for the person that G'd wants to save.
With this we have a deeper understanding of the mitzvah to redeem the donkey with a sheep. As the Sefer Hachinuch (#22) explains, this comes to help us remember the miracle when G'd killed the Egyptian firstborn that are compared to donkeys.
As we discuss and commemorate the miracles at the exodus from Egypt, it strengthens our belief in the miracles we will experience at the final redemption. As the Prophet Michah says (7:15): "As in the days when you left Egypt, I will show you miracles."
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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