The First Born Donkey's Message
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim
Toward the end of Parshat Bo, we are introduced to the mitzvah of redeeming the first born donkey. “And every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, and if you do not redeem, you shall break its neck, and every firstborn of man among your sons, you shall redeem.” Of all the animals that are not kosher, why was the donkey singled out? If one chooses not to redeem the first born donkey, one is commanded to kill the young donkey by breaking the back of its neck with a butcher’s knife. This is disturbing and requires explanation.
In explaining this mitzvah, the thirteenth century classic Sefer Hachinuch writes: “So that the Jews will forever remember the miracle that was performed for them by God at the Exodus from Egypt, where God killed the Egyptian first born, which are compared to donkeys in scripture.” The Sefer Hachinuch is referring to a verse in the prophet Yechezkiel “And she lusted for their concubinage, those whose flesh is the flesh of donkeys, and whose issue is the issue of horses.” (Yechezkiel 23,20) This verse refers to the Egyptian people at the time of the exodus and compares them to donkeys.
Our sages explain that the Egyptian people were steeped in a culture built on sexual pleasure and sexual immorality. The animal that most strongly symbolizes gross physicality is the donkey. The Hebrew word for donkey is “Chamor”, which has the same root letters as the Hebrew word “Chomer” (meaning physical material matter). Therefore, the Egyptian nation that was steeped in “Chomriyut” (physical, material pleasure) is compared to donkeys in the prophet Yechezkiel. The killing of the first born donkey demonstrates the complete and utter rejection of a culture built on the foundation of gross physicality, physical pleasure, and physical immorality. According to this line of reasoning, it is, in fact, the possibility of redemption that needs more explanation.
I would suggest the following: Pleasures of the flesh as an ultimate societal goal and ends unto themselves are what God objects to so strongly. However, physical involvement and physical pleasure focused towards the service of God, within the framework of Torah law, is not to be shunned. The first born donkey is redeemed with a lamb and given to a Kohen, a servant of God. Similarly one is able to “redeem” physical pleasure and involvement by dedicating them to the service of God.