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Of First-borns and Their Parents

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey

There is much said about the unique nature of the ‘greatest of all plagues’ – Makat Bekhorot. However, what truly makes it unique? There are those that propose that because God informed Moshe about this plague long before it was wrought it is therefore naturally separate from – and elevated above - the other nine plagues; ones which God only told Moshe about right before He commanded them performed. However, the episode which inspires this approach proves to be a fairly unconvincing proof-text. Upon leaving Midyan, on his way to Egypt, Moshe is told by God:

֖ ֑ ֚ ֣ ' ֥ ֖

֣ ֗ ֤ ֙ ֔ ֖ ֑ ֙ ֣ ֔ ֖

“And you will say to Pharaoh, ‘so says God: Yisrael is my first born son’; and you will [then] say to him, ‘send my son so he can worship Me; and if you refuse to send him, behold I will kill your first born son.’” (Shemot 4: 22-23)

There are two difficulties that arise with understanding this as a source for the ‘foretelling’ of Makat Bekhorot: 1) this mission-defining message is never recorded as actually ever having been delivered. Neither in Moshe’s conversations with Pharaoh, nor as the specific introduction to the plague itself[1]. 2) All of Egypt’s first-borns were killed, not just Pharaoh’s. It would seem therefore that Makat Bekhorot should/could be seen as yet ‘just another plague’ on the list of destructions wrought upon Egypt by God; instead of a 9+1 formula, it’s merely ‘the Tenth’.

On the other hand, Makat Bekhorot is distinct from the other plagues in three other ways:

  1. God introduces it to Moshe saying, “I’m going to bring one more plague upon Pharaoh and Egypt and after [this plague] he will send you out of here’’ (Shemot 11:1) – i.e. God Himself labels this as the last plague, set up specifically as the Exodus-actualizing plague.
  2. It is the only plague targeted to kill people – i.e. it’s not only the most ‘tragic’, but it incorporates a focused personal/human aspect.
  3. While it does have a warning (to Pharaoh) before it’s brought, God does not formally command Moshe to deliver this warning (as opposed to the other six plagues that included pre-warnings) – i.e. this wasn’t to be appreciated only by Pharaoh; this plague had larger, more comprehensive implications, yet still needed a significant, introductory warning.

So, if Makat Bekhorot is unique for the reasons listed above, what therefore is the purpose/message/lesson we’re supposed to uniquely appreciate from it? How do these differences specifically serve to elucidate this plague’s meaningfulness? We will return to this question shortly.

Later, when Makat Bekhorot is enacted on the eve of the Exodus, the Torah records the following description:

֣ ֣ ֗ ' ֣ ֮ ֣ ֒ ֤ ֙ ֣ ֔ ֚ ֣ ֔ ֖ ֣ ֑ ֖ ֥

֨ ֜ ֗ ֤ ֙ ֔ ֛ ֥ ֖ ֑ ֣ ֔ ֥ ֖

“And it was in the middle of the night, that God smote all the first-borns of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne, to the first born of prisoners locked away in jail, and all the first-borns of animals.

Pharaoh arose that night along with all his servants and all of Egypt and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there wasn’t any house which didn’t have a death within it.

In my family, my eldest brother is a first-born and he has a first-born son – so his house would have suffered deaths. Although I’m the youngest, my first child is a boy and therefore I, too, would have lost someone that night. My middle brother however, is not a first-born himself and his first-born is a girl. Similarly, in my wife’s family growing up, my father-in-law is the second of four siblings, and my wife is his eldest. So, just within my immediate familial circle alone there are two (out of four!) houses where there wouldn’t have been any deaths. So how can it be that this plague which visited every household in all of the Egyptian empire – from Pharaoh’s, to the jails, to the animals, and obviously everyone in between – and still ‘there was no house that didn’t have death in it’?! The odds are strongly against such a reality[2]!

Therefore, it would seem easy to posit that in fact it wasn’t just the first born males who were killed in Egypt that night, but all first-borns, even the females[3]! By now including any first-born – male or female - in this plague’s deaths, there would most inevitably have been a death in every household that night! And in fact, the only time it specifically mentions males at all regarding this plague is in the ‘forewarning’ God gave to Moshe on his way to Egypt which we negated earlier, and in the subsequent mitzvah of .  Interestingly, in the first pasuk to describe this mitzvah (immediately after the plague, while the nation was still in Egypt) it states that ‘because God killed all the first-borns in the land of Egypt – from the first-borns of people until those of the animals – therefore I sacrifice to God the first male offspring [of animal], and all first-born sons I will redeem’ (Shemot 13: 15). In the very same pasuk, it specifically denotes the male offspring for the mitzvah (twice!) juxtaposing it to all first-borns that were killed in the plague[4]!  

When we previously (erroneously) understood that it was only the males who God killed in Makat Bekhorot, we could then have posited some probable reasons behind this particular plague. God was perhaps enacting retribution for the Jewish male babies the Egyptians had killed throughout the years of slavery and oppression. However, this doesn’t necessarily fit because the Egyptians killed all male babies, not just first-borns. Alternatively, striking the males of an empire severely hampers its power and progress; however, this too seems doubtful for was the destroying of all the Egyptian crops and domesticated animals not decimation enough? Would adding the removal of a first-born male from every ‘household’ create a significant loss of strength? However, if we’re now understanding that God actually killed all the first-borns, why did God do it and what significant message can we glean from it? The answer must be reflected in the three differences found within the nature of this plague mentioned above, namely 1) it was the final, Exodus-actualizing plague, 2) it killed people, thus incorporating a focused human and personal-appreciating component and 3) it had broader, more comprehensive implications.

For, what is the common truth that binds all first-borns, and not just first-born males? They are the first to transform people into parents. And so, on the eve of His children’s Exodus, God turns to all of Egypt and declares – On this night, after this final plague, it is now My turn to become a parent! And because you have thus far hindered my ability to do so by prohibiting My first-born to leave, I will strike at your ‘parenthood’, indelibly marking the significance of the moment I took what was Mine from those who wouldn’t give it willingly”. And it is on this night in Egypt, against the backdrop of the oppressors’ consciousness of the true nature of their transgressions, God’s nation is finally born.

 

[1] It would seem also, within the context that it is found, to make more sense that it was actually meant specifically as a message for Moshe himself; something he needed to hear before God tries to kill him– upon his arrival at the inn - immediately after this message is delivered.

[2] In truth, Ancient Egyptian families would often live within one ‘house’ complex, with different – often unrelated - families occupying different rooms within the ‘house’ and sharing one communal courtyard. However, with the Torah’s additional specific inclusions of the first-born of captives, maidservants and animals – it would seem that the Torah is not merely focusing on one specific household dynamic but a larger, undefined, Egyptian existence.

[3] And in fact, records show that Egyptian households equally favored the male and female children – as necessary components to family life.

[4] It is also logical that the subsequent national mitzvah would include only the male offspring, for in an agricultural/financially-driven society, it would be the male offspring which would represent a more significant enforced ‘redemption’ from God.

 

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