In this week’s parsha, G-d issues the last three of the ten plagues. During the final one, makat bechorot, G-d passes over every bechor, Jewish firstborn son, and kills every Egyptian firstborn male. Because of this miracle, the firstborn of the Jewish people are forever sanctified. “Sanctify for Me every firstborn, those who open every womb.”
Today, the mitzvah of pidyon haben (redemption of the [firstborn] son) reminds of us the miracle. When a Jewish woman gives birth to a firstborn male, the father of the child must redeem him, for the modern equivalent of five silver shekels, from a Kohen, a Jewish man who is known to be descended from priests of the Holy Temple. A father who is a Kohen or a Levite, descended from those who assisted the priests in the Temple service, is exempt, as is a mother whose father is a Kohen or Levite.
One of conditions for fulfilling the mitzvah of pidyon haben is that the birth must be natural (non-caesarean), and the result of a mother’s first pregnancy, i.e., not preceded by a miscarriage. What is the purpose of these conditions for pidyon haben?
Rabbi Yissocher Frand suggests that the answer can be found by examining the mitzvah of bikurim, the dedication of first fruits of the harvest to the Holy Temple. Writes Rabbi Frand: “[Bikurim reminds us that] the most natural process still requires the miraculous intervention of Hashem, that we are always dependent on Divine Providence no matter how naturally everything seems to be coming our way.”
Rabbi Frand continues: “When people have all sorts of trouble conceiving [and delivering] a child, they turn to Hashem and plead with him. And when the child is finally born, they know full well that it is a priceless gift from Hashem. But when things go normally [and naturally], they may not realize that the child is just as great a gift from Hashem.” The mitzvah of pidyon haben and its condition of first pregnancy and natural birth reminds us to be thankful even when things go well, when we are most likely to forget that we are always dependent upon G-d.