Opening the Womb

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

Judaism has a distinct obsession with the firstborn, which is particularly evident in this week’s Parshah of Bo.

The final plague visited upon the Egyptians was the smiting of the firstborn, in which every firstborn Egyptian male (both human and animal) was killed.

This last plague was not merely one of the ten – it’s singular significance was far greater than the other plagues. In fact, one could say that all of the other plagues combined were merely the prelude to the grand finale. Already in Parshat Sh’mot, the very first words that G-d instructed Moses to say to Pharaoh, the very first message that He wished to be conveyed, was: “So said the Lord, ‘My firstborn son is Israel. So I say to you, send out My son so that he will worship Me, but if you refuse to send him out, behold, I am going to slay your firstborn son.'” Exodus, 4:22-23.

The above verse also tells us why the firstborn was targeted: because “My firstborn son is Israel.” Because Egypt enslaved and persecuted G-d’s firstborn, G-d would mete out a symmetrical punishment, and kill Egypt‘s firstborn.

Why is Passover so named? Because G-d freed the Israelites, and took them out of Egypt? Not at all. It is to commemorate the fact that G-d passed over the Israelite houses while he was killing the Egyptian firstborn. It commemorates the fact that the Israelite firstborn was spared, while the Egyptian firstborn was killed. It is surely highly significant that we refer to our very first and most famous holiday – not with a name that reflects the exodus, or liberty, or freedom, but rather – with a name that recalls the final plague, and G-d’s discrimination between the Egyptian and Jewish firstborn.

In recognition of the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn – and the simultaneous sparing of the Israelite firstborn – G-d then commands the Israelites to “sanctify to Me every firstborn.” Exodus, 13:2. From that point forward, the lives of the Israelite firstborn were impacted in two different ways: First, every firstborn human male had to be redeemed, and every firstborn animal had to be sacrificed (if a kosher animal) or redeemed (if a non-kosher animal). Second, the firstborn were separated from the rest of the nation to dedicate their lives to G-d’s service. It was only following the sin of the Golden Calf that the mantle of Divine service was passed from the firstborn to the Levites – the only tribe that did not participate in the sin, as we discussed here.

So why the firstborn? What is so special about the firstborn? And why does G-d view the Israelites as His firstborn anyway?

Perhaps there is a clue in the aforementioned verse: “Sanctify to Me every firstborn, every one that opens the womb among the children of Israel among man and among animals; it is Mine.”

A firstborn is one who opens the womb. Prior to the birth of the firstborn, a woman’s womb is closed, unused, untested. It is the firstborn, and the firstborn alone, who opens his/her mother’s womb.*

Many regard the womb as the essence of femininity. Indeed, there are countless books and websites devoted to femininity that use the word “womb” in their title or domain name. See, e.g., “Womb Wisdom: Awakening the Creative and Forgotten Powers of the Feminine,” available on; “Womb Of Light, The Power of the Awakened Feminine”; Womb Healing:
The Divine Feminine Power of the Womb” – and many others. Even more symbolically, as defined in, a womb is “the place in which anything is formed or produced, such as ‘the womb of time.'” In other words, the womb represents the creative center of the universe and all of its inhabitants.

Sex can take a woman’s virginity, but it will not necessarily “open her womb” – not even very deep sex (although truly deep penetration may sometimes be described with reference to the womb). And once a woman’s womb is open, once that creative center is engaged, it does not close again. Thus, it is only the firstborn that opens a woman’s womb, and that initiates her feminine capacity for creation.

Egypt was our womb. In it, we were forged from a family of individuals into a nation. And it was we that opened the womb, as it states in Midrash, “no slave had ever escaped from Egypt until then.” See Mechiltah, 81; Exodus, 18:9, in Rashi. Exodus was the first time a new and creative force broke the chains of bondage, severed the umbilical cord, and emerged from Egypt.

More importantly, however, it all stems back to the fact that we are G-d’s firstborn. Israel is the firstborn that opened the Divine womb.

As it states in Midrash with respect to the very first word of the Torah, B’reishit (which can be read as a combination of the letter “Bet,” representing the number two, and the word “Reishit,” the “beginning”): “Our Rabbis stated that G-d created the world for the sake of the Torah, which is called “the beginning of His way” (Proverbs 8:22), and for the sake of Israel, who are called “the first of His grain” (Jeremiah 2:3). See Genesis Rabbah 1:6; Leviticus Rabbah 36:4. In other words, B’Reishit alludes to creation having been inspired by two things, both of which are referred to as “Reishit“: Torah and Israel.

In fact, Midrash states that, even before creation, “the souls of Israel arose in [G-d’s] primordial thought.” Genesis Rabbah 1:4. In other words, the creative energy with which G-d formed His universe was inspired by the specter of future Israel. We thus opened G-d’s womb, and it was His anticipation of us that released the flow of His creative power.

Being G-d’s firstborn, and knowing that it was G-d’s consideration of the Jewish people that inspired the creation of the universe, is an empowering perspective that has the power to transform, illuminate and elevate our daily interaction with the world around us.

*Obviously, the true significance of the firstborn applies to male and female children equally, despite the fact that the biblical narrative refers to firstborn sons, and that the Torah’s laws pertaining to the firstborn apply only to firstborn males (for reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay).