A new insight into the killing of the first-born

The last plague can be seen as a test for the People of Israel, and a way to internalize their new position as G-d's people.

Danny Ginsbourg

Judaism Farm for growing sheep in Southern Israel
Farm for growing sheep in Southern Israel

Why, asks Rav Yitzchak Kraus, did the final plague differ from its nine predecessors, in that Moshe Rabenu did not forewarn Pharoah that, if he did not relent, he would be afflicted with this final plague, but instead, TOLD him that it was now coming.

Adds the Rav:’And, instead of then describing the occurrence of this plague, the Torah relates, in great detail, the Mitzvot of the New Moon, of the קרבן פסח, Passover offering, and the marking of the doors with the blood of the קרבן פסח and of the ברית מילה, circumcision, which they had to undergo, to partake of the קרבן.

‘Only then, in two brief verses does the Torah relate the occurrence of the plague.

‘Further, a great part of these verses are concerned with the ‘protection’ of Bnei Israel, and not the plague itself.

‘Therefore’, adduces the Rav, ‘we must conclude that the plague was intended, first and foremost, to ‘test’ Bnei Israel, and not just to afflict the Egyptians.

‘Why was this needed? Because Bnei Israel, at this critical time, were ‘bereft’ of Mitzvot, and were ‘unprotected’ from the plague.

‘These Mitzvot of קרבן פסח, of ברית מילה, and of the marking of the doors with the blood, provided this ‘protection’.

‘More important, these Mitzvot were intended to cause Bnei Israel to ‘internalize’ that their ‘destiny’ is to be Hashem’s firstborn.

‘To merit this great honour, then’- AND NOW- Bnei Israel had to perform Mitzvot which required מסירות נפש, a willing to be martyred- as was the case of those particular Mitzvot’.

The Maharal comments that Bnei Israel could only be ‘saved’ from the plague by being ‘Hashem’s portion’. Since the purpose of the plague was to rid Egypt of the forces of impurity, how else could they become ‘Hashem’s portion’, if not by serving him, by the offering of the קרבן פסח!

Adds the Ramchal:’To deserve to be ‘saved’, Bnei Israel had to also participate in this ‘cleansing’, and this was by they marking their doors with the blood of the קרבן פסח and of the ברית מילה. 

‘Clearly Hashem did not ‘need’ their ‘help’ in this task; but, as the purpose of taking them out of Egypt was to accept the Torah- by accepting freely that:’All that Hashem commands, we shall do and we shall hear’- they had to ‘participate’ in the purification, by so marking their doors, signifying that their houses were free of the previous impurity, and were now sanctified to Hashem.

‘This is the essence of our עבודת פסח, our Passover worship, to rise, and to separate wholly from the impurity into which we may have sunk.

‘Our sages teach this lesson, by  homiletically expounding, the commandment:(12:21)’משכו וקחו לכם צאן: ‘Draw forth or buy for yourselves sheep for your family, and slaughter the Pesach sacrifice’, as:’Draw forth your hands from  עבודה זרה׳, idol worship, and take sheep of Mitzvah’, to offer to Hashem, as your קרבן פסח’’.

The thirteenth-Century sage, Rav Yosef Giktilia, explains the ‘need‘ for מכת בכורות, the slaying of the first-born, in the celestial realm:’The first amongst the heavenly advocate of the nations was the שר, angel, of Egypt.

‘He was acknowledged as the בכור: ‘the first-born’. Similarly, the mazal of Egypt was טלה: ‘the sheep’, and its constellation was therefore the first, and reigned in the first month of Nisan. The טלה was therefore worshipped by the Egyptians.

‘To ‘release’ Bnei Israel from the hold of this influence, so that they could be Hashem’s people again- His בכור: ‘first-born’- Hashem brought מכת בכורות, first בכל אלהי מצרים : destroying all of their ‘gods’, and THEN killing the first-born of Egypt, who served them’.

The Netivot Shalom, in a similar vein, comments that Exodus or יציאת מצרים was not simply the physical exodus from there, but was an eternal, spiritual matter: that the forces of sanctity completely vanquished the forces of impurity of Egypt, its gods, and its whole culture and way of life.

This, he expounds, is the meaning of the pasuk (Beha’lotcha 8:17)’On the day I struck every first-born in the land of Egypt, I sanctified the’ first-born of Bnei Israel, to Me’.

The forces of impurity represented by the first-born of Egypt, had to be vanquished, as only then, could Bnei Israel be ‘freed’ of the impurity which into which they had descended; only then could they truly be sanctified, and merit to again be Hashem’s portion.

A final thought, founded on an insight of the S’fat Emet, on the words of David Hamelech(135:4): כי יעקב בחר לו יה, ישראל לסגולתו- this ‘should’ be read as:‘Because Yaakov chose Hashem for himself, Hashem chose Israel, to be His treasure’. 

As the Ramchal taught, Hashem wants us to play our part in fulfilling our destiny, to be worthy to be called ‘Hashem’s first-born’.

לרפואת נועם עליזה בת זהבה רבקה ונחום אלימלך רפאל בן זהבה רבקה, בתוך שאר חולי עמנו.