אֵת בְכוֹר הָאָדָם … תִפְדֶה
you shall redeem the firstborn of man.
The ceremonial of redemption of the first born son re-enacts the drama of Abraham offering Isaac to the Lord, of the knight of faith (using Kierkegaard’s term) giving unreservedly away his son to God.
Children are the greatest and most precious charge God has entrusted to man’s custody without granting any property rights to them. Man, willy-nilly, must acknowledge this irrevocable though bitter truth; he must be ready to lose everything, if losing is what God demands. He must always answer the call summoning him to perform heroically the movement of withdrawal from the most tightly knit and natural community on earth – that of father and son, to retreat from positions, which psychologically speaking, man lacks the courage to abandon because a departure from these positions would mean to the ordinary, unredeemed person self-displacement and existential uprootedness.
The offering of Isaac is exemplary of this type of sacrificial service of God. Our midrashic scholars maintained that God, when he commanded Abraham to take his son and offer him on one of the mountains, did not will him to bring a physical sacrifice consisting of blood, burnt flesh and fat. All He willed Abraham to do is relinquish his son whom he showered with love that tore down all barriers separating two individual beings and united them both into one Torah, all pretense of possessiveness, all claims of unity and identity, all hopes of self-perpetuation and immortalization through Isaac and return him to Whom he belongs. This sacrifice was to express itself not in extinction of the physical Isaac, not in separation of the child from his parents nor in actual consecration of Isaac to the Lord within a framework of a temple service in the manner foreshadowing Hannah lending Samuel to the Lord, but in the spiritual retreat of the father from his son for a short period of time. Abraham had to disengage himself for a while from his emotional involvement with his heir and son. Abraham made this movement of withdrawal and Isaac was returned to him. A new gift was bestowed upon Abraham or, to be more exact, a new charge was placed in his trust on the Mt. Moriah.
The presentation of the child to the kohen is symbolic of Abrahams performance when he bound Isaac and placed him on the altar. The father of today, as Abraham of old, acknowledges the absolute ownership of the child by God. He renounces all his illusory rights and urgent claims to this child; he makes the movement of withdrawal from the most important position in man’s life – his relatedness to posterity. He retreats from an existential structure in which all – father, mother and child – are indissolubly united. It is an [act] of paradoxical self-transcendence, of knocking out the bottom of one’s own existence, of revoking the irrevocable, and of making the leap into the realm of the absurd. God wills the consecration of the first-born son because the emotional involvement of the parent with his first born is of the most intricate and intimate nature and the closer the relation and the more deep-rooted the commitment of the father to the child, the more sublime and hallowed is the sacrifice. When the kohen returns the child to the father and accepts the five shekels, he presents him on behalf of God with a new child; something precious is re-entrusted to him. The dialectical drama of Mt. Moriah consisting in losing and finding a son is re-staged in all its magnificence. After receiving the child from the kohen, the father must always remain aware that it was only through God’s infinite grace that this infant was returned to him in sacred trust. (Community, Covenant and Commitment, pp. 300-302).