The Torah describes a case of a man married to two women (which was allowed in biblical times). In this case, the man loves one of the wives and hates the other. The hated wife gives birth to a son before the loved one does. The Torah mandates that the husband must recognize the son of the hated wife as his firstborn along with the legal benefits and obligations that come with that title.
The Bat Ayin on Deuteronomy 21:15 digs deeper into the symbolism of the case. The verse mentions the loved wife before the hated one. He explains that it hints that we should do what is “loved” before what is “hated,” namely we should start our day with prayer and Torah which is “loved” by God before engaging with the mundane, secular world which in a sense is “hated” by God as compared to prayer and Torah.
However, continuing with the analogy, the “hated” wife gives birth to a “firstborn” son. The Bat Ayin explains that while the “loved” activities of prayer, Torah and fulfilling God’s commands are indeed dear to God as compared to one’s other activities, there is a reversal of sorts. When one is engaged in their secular activities (after the more sacred ones), there is an opportunity – not present in the sacred activities, to extract some aspects of good from the mundane. By engaging honestly, pleasantly, and meaningfully in one’s work, studies and other “non-religious” activities, one can actually draw out and elevate the divine aspect of that activity hidden in the coarse garb of the material world. One can draw out what the Kabbalists call “sparks” (nitzotzot in Hebrew) of holiness, that otherwise would have been lost and buried.
This is the “firstborn” of the analogy; the “firstborn” from the “hated” wife, those sparks of divinity from our mundane activities are precious to God. In a sense, they are on a higher level than the conventional “loved” activity of Torah and prayer. Perhaps because it is harder to find and to get. Perhaps because we have to struggle with the reality of unholiness. Perhaps because those sparks are so hidden and ephemeral.
May we enjoy the benefits of doing “loved” activities as well as revealing the hidden, precious “firstborn” sparks all around us.
Dedication: To the memory of Batsheva Nigri z”l, murdered by Arab terrorists. May God avenge her blood.