After Hashem redeemed Bnei Yisrael from Egypt, firstborns of Bnei Yisrael must have experienced intense feelings of Hakarat HaTov for being spared from the final Makah, the death of the Egyptian firstborns. The Pesukim at the end of our Parasha describe this sense of gratitude in no uncertain terms: “And it happened when Paroh stubbornly refused to send us out that Hashem killed all of the firstborns in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of man to the firstborn of beast. Therefore, I offer to Hashem each male first of the womb, and I shall redeem all the firstborns of my sons” (Shemot 13:15).
What was the nature of this redemption of the firstborns? Seforno comments that such a redemption allowed for the firstborns to engage in Avodat Chol, mundane work. The implication is that had the firstborns not been redeemed, they would have remained on the original lofty level of Kedushah for their entire lives. If this is so, what is the nature of the Minhag to make a celebratory meal on the day a Pidyon HaBen takes place? It seems that such an occasion does not call for any Simchah at all! Isn't the redemption a disappointment, as the child descends from the loftiest levels of Kedushah to the life of a “regular” person?
Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky (Emet LeYaakov pp. 292-293; comments to Bereishit 2:4 and Shemot 23:16) answers our question with a concept that is fundamental to understanding the role of a Jew in this world. The secular world often views the Neshamah and the Guf (body and soul) as being two, independent entities. Pursuits of holiness are assigned to the soul, while the body remains unrefined and is content with a life of mundane activities. It is for this reason that a non-Jew is entitled to bring only a Korban Olah, a burnt offering (from which nothing is eaten), in the Beit HaMikdash; a non-Jew is unable to grasp the depth of Kedushah that can be attained by simply eating from a Korban. However, the Gemara (Pesachim 68b) records a very different story when it comes to a Jew’s mentality in serving his Creator: “All agree that on Shavuot, one needs to spend a portion of the day eating.” On the day on which we commemorate the acquisition of our holy Torah, it is more appropriate than ever to remind ourselves that Torah offers us the unique opportunity to sanctify the mundane.
With this fundamental principal, we can come to a true appreciation and recognition of the Simchah of a Pidyon HaBen. While it is true that prior to the firstborn’s redemption he is entirely holy and can be viewed as being enveloped in the purely spiritual world, it is only after his redemption that he can achieve man’s true mission in this world: to find and elevate the simple sparks of holiness scattered throughout the four corners of the earth.
In Parashat Shemot, when Moshe first encountered Hashem by the burning thorn bush, he was informed that the land upon which he was standing was holy ground. The Chafetz Chaim (Chafetz Chaim Al HaTorah p. 94) explains that in reality, we all are charged with the task of recognizing that there is no place in this world devoid of Kedushah, and consequently it is our mission to bring to fruition the call of Hashem to all Jews: “HaMakom Asher Atah Omeid Alav Admat Kodesh Hu” (Shemot 3:5).
The message of bringing together the spiritual and the physical is so critical to Torah Jews that Hashem taught this message at the beginning of creation. The Mishnah tells us, “Kol Maasecha Yihyu LeSheim Shamayim,” “Everything you do should be for the sake of heaven” (Avot 2:12). The Bobover Rebbe (Kedushat Tzion, Parashat Bereishit) asks why the Mishnah uses the term “LeSheim Shamayim” as opposed to the seemingly more appropriate “LeSheim Hashem?” The Rebbe explained that the word Shamayim is made up of Eish and Mayim (Rashi to Bereishit 1:8). In the creation of Shamayim, two things that seemingly cannot be intermingled came together for a common cause. So too, many things we see in the natural world we assume have no connection to the world of Ruchniyut, spirituality. However, in reality, all of our deeds can be made LeSheim Shamayim!
With the physically and spiritually cold days of Tevet behind us and the first rays of spring on the horizon, we enter the days of Shevat, a month that is dedicated to strengthening our commitment to elevating the physical. The Sefarim HaKedoshim tell us in the name of Sefer Yetzirah (one of the oldest and most obscure Kabbalistic texts, attributed by many to Rabi Akiva) that each month is accorded various attributes that are unique to its essence. Additionally, each month is given a letter of the holy Aleph-Bet that is likewise intricately connected to that month's inner essence. The month of Shevat is associated with the letter Tzadi as well as the action of “Le'itah,” a word used to describe a gluttonous, animalistic eating (see, for example, Bereishit 25:30, in which Eisav demands, “Hal’iteini Na Min HaAdom HaAdom HaZeh”). Various Sefarim explain the relationship between the letter Tzadi and Le'itah as follows: the way in which one eats often will be the truest indication of whether or not he truly is a Tzaddik (a word parallel to Tzadi). Throughout Torah, we find many Olam HaZeh-activities described with the term “Achilah.” It is specifically through the sanctity of elevating one’s worldly actions that one merits the title “Tzaddik.” (For further study, see Ohr Gedalyahu to Chodesh Shevat and Sheim MiShemuel.)
May we all be Zocheh to be worthy of such a title as we fulfill the ultimate purpose of man in this world, and through our elevated actions, may we be Zocheh to bring the Geulah Sheleimah speedily in our days.