Parshat Bo (Exodus 10:1 – 13:16)
There is something deeply intriguing about the final plague – the plague of the firstborn – that we read in Parshat Bo. The Torah relates: “So said Hashem: At midnight, I will go out into the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the Land of Egypt shall die” [Ex. 12:12]. It is as though Hashem is saying “it’s either Me or them” – I will go out, and the firstborn will die. Why, though, should it be presented like this?
The plague of the firstborn is rather striking. Hashem could have targeted anyone above the age of twenty, for instance, or anyone involved in the subjugation of the Jewish people in Egypt. Why should someone who wasn’t a firstborn but had subjugated the Jews be let off the hook? This plague must have also affected children who were firstborn, as well as the elderly. Where is the fairness and logic in that?
Furthermore, this is the finale – “the plague to end all plagues”. Should a final plague convey some kind of moral message to humanity as the subjugation of the Jewish people in Egypt comes to an end?
In fact, we discover that not only firstborn Egyptians succumbed to this plague – the firstborn of other nations, and even firstborn animals, were also affected. Accordingly, the text specifies “the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the slave woman who is behind the millstones, and every firstborn animal” [11:5]. In other words, even the firstborn servants weren’t spared.
Later, the text mentions the captives held by the Egyptians, who would succumb to the same fate. “And Hashem smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who is in the dungeon…” [12:29].
Indeed, our rabbis tried to understand the rationale behind this special plague that even claimed the lives of captives who hadn’t lifted a finger against the Jews – not to mention blameless animals. The most prominent interpretation is that the firstborn of the slave-women deserved to be smitten because they were just as guilty of subjugating the Israelites as the Egyptians, and delighted in their misery. We still remember the Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and others conquered by the Nazis, who had also collaborated with them against the Jews, and had even taken great pleasure in doing so.
Yet we are still left with an open question: why did Hashem need to do away with the firstborn of the captives? Our rabbis say that this was done so that they wouldn’t believe their gods had come to their aid. In other words, had the captives seen that only Egyptian firstborn were affected, they may have mistakenly believed that their own gods had come to their rescue by battling Egyptian gods. This is why they, too, needed to share the fate of the Egyptians.
This response, however, requires further study. Would Hashem have killed innocent captives simply so that they wouldn’t think that their gods had helped them? Rabbinic exegesis continues with the question of what Hashem had against the firstborn of the animals. They answer that “they were deified by the Egyptians, and when Hashem obliterates a nation, He also obliterates its gods.” If firstborn animals were considered a type of deity in Egypt, they would need to be destroyed, as well.
A cursory reading of the various responses leads to the following conclusion: Hashem kills anyone who is firstborn, either because of the subjugation and taking pleasure in Israel’s misfortune, or because an animal was worshiped as a deity by the Egyptians. By chance, those who were smitten were firstborn beasts and human beings.
It seemingly behooves us to find a more profound common denominator to link these three responses. In some communities, the tradition is that the firstborn fast on the day before Passover, and those who have trouble fasting can participate in a siyum of a tractate of Talmud. The source of this tradition is that originally, the firstborn Israelites were also supposed to die in the plague, and they fast today in commemoration of the salvation of those firstborn.
Why did the firstborn Israelites deserve to die? Wasn’t this a struggle against Egypt? Perhaps, the “war” against the firstborn symbolizes the struggle between those who choose to see their own strength and courage as the origin of power and authority in the world, and Hashem, who wants the source of power in the world to be founded on divinity, morality and human benevolence, not merely on the power and status a person had acquired because of his or her age or economic success.
Pharaoh doesn’t just epitomize the subjugators. Our rabbis say that he was a firstborn, himself. He saw himself as a deity. He was convinced that his strength and status are what allowed him to rule over the lives of other people and deprive them of their basic freedoms.
This is why the firstborn of the animals also symbolized Egyptian paganism and the source of that power. This view had seeped into all of humanity: the social precept that a firstborn (who was usually considered the strongest child) manages the household, is responsible for matters of worship in the family, and more.
This often worked well and was how things should have been. That is, up the point when the firstborns felt they had the right to rule over others because of their status. The plague of the firstborn was designed to shatter that myth. Firstborns, like any other human being, are free to do whatever they please, provided that they adhere to the moral code that the Almighty had planted within them. The plague of the firstborn opens a window to a new, free world, without social status and preferential treatment.