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  • Writer's pictureJay Schwartz

Two “Tails” of Redemption and Deliverance

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

Only in Israe

l! Yesterday I was privy to attend a truly unique and inspiring gathering in the pastoral setting of Park Ayalon, the “Central Park” of our neighborhood here in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph. In addition to myself, there were well over 1,000 people in attendance, mostly children who had been brought by their various yeshivot, teachers, and many local residents. The occasion? A public performance of the mitzva of Pidyon Peter Chamor, the redemption of a first born donkey!

This mitzva, relating to remembering our deliverance from Egypt, reads as follows (Shmos 13:13):

כל פטר חמר תפדה בשה ואם לא תפדה וערפתו וכל בכור אדם בבניך תפדה

You shall redeem every first born donkey with a lamb, if you do not redeem it, you must break the back of its neck with an ax, every first born person among your sons you should redeem (at the cost of five shekalim)

The procedure for this mitzva is to give a pedigreed Kohen the lamb, which will then release one’s first born donkey from its status of assur b’hana’a, designated as holy and unfit for use for any purpose at all. In our case, the Kohen was the venerable Rabbi Simcha HaKohen Kook, Chief Rabbi of the city of Rechovot.

We all watched the adorable donkey (30 days old), along with his lamb substitute, both bedecked and decorated for the occasion to the delight of everyone, especially the children. As the presentation of the lamb took place we all recited, together with Rabbi Kook, the relevant bracha and Shehechiyanu, followed with joyous songs and dancing.

Reflecting on this event, I was intrigued by two questions:

  1. Why did the verse we quoted link specifically the redemption of a first born donkey and the first born Jewish son, a ceremony attend known as Pidyon HaBen?

  1. Why would the Torah demand that a donkey that is not redeemed be beheaded in a rather specific and cruel fashion? The Rambam and the Sefer HaChinuch count the beheading of a donkey that the owner refuses to redeem with a lamb or its equivalent in money, as a mitzva. The Ra’avad decries on the Rambam’s words in Mishneh Torah Laws of B’chorim (Chapter 12, Halacha 1), saying:

Thus sayeth Abraham, by my life, this is not a proper derived teaching, and it’s also completely illogical to think that there would be a positive command to behead this donkey, rather, it is a sin and destruction, and the perpetrator should be called a destroyer of the wealth that the Kohen is entitled to!

In answer to my first question, Rashi explains why this applies only to donkeys, and not to other animals such as horses, camels, etc. And he offers two explanations of this Divine decree, one of which is that according to our tradition, no Jew left Egypt without many donkeys laden with the silver and gold of all of Egypt. As the Jewish first born sons left laden with riches, the Egyptian sons were destroyed. Therefore, our thanks is two fold, the simultaneous destruction of the Egyptian, in contradistinction to the spectacular redemption to the Jews’ leaving of Egypt with vast, untold wealth. (Ironically, Rabbi Kook’s city of Rechovot has the highest per capita income of any city in all of Israel.)

On a deeper level, one could understand that wealth and worldliness is specifically what the problem of the bondage in Egypt was all about. Pharaoh forced the Jews to build him treasure cities, pitting the acquisition of immense wealth against the destruction of the very lives of the Jewish people. The Medrash recounts that Pharaoh decreed that if the quota of bricks for his treasure pyramids was insufficient, they would seal the gaps with the bodies of Jewish infants instead. The message seems clear, wealth dedicated to the service of HaShem and mankind is holy and rises out from impurity and becomes part of building a sacred world, symbolized by the Mishkan that would eventually be assembled from the gold and silver the donkeys carried out on their backs.

It is interesting to note that the word chamor in this verse is spelt without a vav which can be read, therefore, as chomer, or materialism. The donkey then symbolizes material wealth. Indeed, the Rambam suggests in The Guide to the Perplexed, that the mitzva pertained to donkeys specifically because they were the animal that everyone had for basic transportation and work, as opposed to horses and camels, which were not commonly owned. The donkey is the symbol of the tribe of Yissachar, those that devoted their lives to Torah study. Their burden is the treasure trove of Torah study and wisdom, supported by their business partner, Zevulun, in a classic partnership known as Yissachar-Zevulun (see B’reishis 49:14, where chamor is also spelled without the vav).

The answer to our second question flows from the first answer. One could suggest that the Torah is teaching that a person’s refusal to link chomer to support the cause of k’dusha renders it assur b’hana’a, the type of wealth that no one should lay a finger on, or aspire to attain.

Several weeks ago, we all heard about another “tail,” also related to Egypt, that is the horse American Pharaoh, which won the Triple Crown in the US and was owned by a Sabbath observant Egyptian Jew. It was widely publicized that the Mexican jockey (not Jewish), on the eve of the third and final race, the Belmont Stakes, went to prayer nearby in Queens at the gravesite of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, as featured on Channel 2News and other media. It was touching to hear how this non-Jew placed his faith in the kedusha of a Jewish tzaddik as a place to pray for his own material success and health. Nedless to say, his prayers seemed to have been answered. I only learned afterwards, from my good friend, Nelson Obus of Princeton NJ, who visited Israel soon after that race, and informed me that experts in horse racing had predicted that American Pharaoh would fail miserably at the third race for a variety of reasons, it’s age, the distance involved and the horse’s own racing history. All indicated failure. They mocked the novices who placed their money on what they expected to be a losing battle.

American Pharaoh not only triumphed, but in the final furlongs outperformed by a full second every other horse in Belmont history, save one, including the famed Triple Crown winner, Secretariat (1973). I was inspired to learn that indeed this was somewhat of a miraculaous performance which strengthened my convication that attaching ourselves in our material quests to kedusha and tsaddikim will always offer redemption and deliverance.

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