Make holy to me every firstborn [male]that issues forth first [in Hebrew, "petter"]from the womb among the children of Israel. In man and beast they are to be mine. (Ex. 13:2)
"Petter" [spelled pei=80, tet=9, reish=200, totaling 289] has a numerical value of 288 [in gematria terminology, R'PaCh: reish=200, pei=80, chet=8, totaling 288] with the addition of 1 [a normal Kabbalistic hermeneutic known as the kollel]. And they [these 288] are the judgments. For it is not possible for the womb to open without [an emission of] blood [a physical manifestation of the supernal gevurot], and therefore the 288 Sparks fell [from the supernal womb so to speak], and they are the masculine judgments.
There are [in actuality] 325 [shin=300, chaf =20, hei=5, totaling 325] masculine judgments, the 288 together with the 32 Pathways and the 5 [final letters: mem, nun, tzadi, pei and chaf] that sweeten them. These are the original firstborn [Olam Ha'nikudim] that went forth and died [descended]. And there [above] went out a supernal kindness for their rectification [of the fallen masculine judgments]. Therefore, the Priests enter in their [the firstborns'] place [in the Temple service], like there [above] entered a supernal kindness, [which functions as] a priest in the place of the 288, which are the firstborn [above]… (Likutei Torah of Arizal, Bo) Kabbala, as a spiritual path, is about coming into harmony with the flow of the Divine Will…
In this revelation of the Arizal, we see very clearly the profound relationship of our humanly performable commandments to the supernal correlates that they mirror. Ultimately, Kabbala, as a spiritual path, is about coming into harmony with the flow of the Divine Will as it courses its way through the supernal realms and into our own earthly planet and person.
We also start to detect a pattern from this teaching, that, in Kabbala, the firstborn is specifically not the most balanced expression of Creation. This applies whether we look at the earlier creation of the Olam Ha'nikudim where the Shattering of the Vessels took place or the Torah narratives in the book of Genesis. In the latter, we clearly see a pattern of spiritual descent with the firstborn, examples include: Cain, Ishmael, Esau and Reuben. The sefirot in the Olam Ha'nikudim
The organization of the sefirot in the Olam Ha'nikudim was the first instance where the sefirot were organized as individual entities. (Etz Chaim p.145) Thus in this sense the Arizal considers them firstborn, specifically as individual sefirot. In this position they were not prepared to receive the light they were to be vessels for and thus descended. (Ibid.) By analogy, often the firstborn inherits psychologically and spiritually more from the parents than they can integrate and thus they fall later with G‑d's help to reconstruct themselves. This is demonstrated as the Olam Ha'nikudim received a rectification in the emanation of the Olam Ha'berudim. (Ibid. p. 267)
Two classical examples of a firstborn son being unable to handle what was received from the father are Ishmael and Esau. Ishmael, as the firstborn of Abraham and Hagar (Gen. 16:4) was unable to handle the expansive powers of Kindness he inherited from Abraham's soul. Thus, Ishmael is associated with the negative quality of sexual promiscuity. (Zohar I:118a, Bereishit Rabba 53:15) This is understood as the power of chesed, an expansive force in an unbalanced container. The light overpowers the vessels and comes out in a distorted and fallen expression of chesed.
Esau was the firstborn of Isaac and Rebecca (Gen. 25:25) and was the recipient of a tremendous personal Power (gevura) from his father Isaac. Due to an unbalanced vessel however, that power was not directed inward, in the effort of containing and transforming the self into a pure vessel for the soul. Rather, it was distorted and became focused outward in violence. (Gen. 25:29, see Rashi on Pesachim 54b, s.v. Bigdo and Bava Batra 16b) A new light…must come and make the rectification…
In each case, we see the same essential pattern as that of the Olam Ha'nikudim. The light is too powerful for the vessels and it causes a shattering, whether personal or supernal. Ultimately a new light, sefirotic array, or son, must come and make the rectification.
It would be well for us as individuals to pay attention to our own firstborn thoughts, goals, perceptions and choices and see to what extent do they conform to this negative dynamic of the fallen firstborn. We could ask ourselves in what ways have we been overwhelmed and imbalanced in life psychologically, spiritually or intellectually and we have fallen as a result. In such instances, we need the light of a priest, the embodiment of wise kindness, to help us rectify our often broken souls.
Here is an example of how this light/vessel dynamic works in our own psyche. Let us take the intellectual power of discrimination. This is a fine trait, essential for life and spiritual practice. However, if this quality is not appropriately channeled and tempered by other qualities of the soul like humility and holiness one can G‑d forbid fall into a judgmental and critical perspective of others and or oneself. In this case one's vessel cannot contain the light and discrimination becomes distorted and becomes expressed judgmentally.
It is not coincidence that the word for character trait in Hebrew is "midda", or "middot" in plural. "Middot" also means a measure as in measuring weights. We need, after all, to measure the exact amount of a quality and not let it become imbalanced on the scale of our life.
[Adapted by Zechariah Goldman.]