· 12:21-23: Mosses, following the direction previously given to him and Aaron from G-d, offers the Israelites a recipe to have the forthcoming plague of death of the first born “pass over” their homes
· 2:24:27 – Mosses further informs the Israelites that what is about to occur, the destruction of the enemy without any collateral damage, will forever be observed as an annual observation
· 12:29-30: The first born of every family in Egypt, both child and cattle, is killed during the night
· 12:31-33: Pharaoh orders Mosses and Aaron to take the Israelites out of Egypt
· 12:33-36: The Israelites essentially loot the Egyptians prior to their departure
· 12:37-40: After exactly 430 years of living in Egypt, the Israelites depart from its soil
· 12:43-50: The laws regarding whom may observe “Passover” are laid out
I can think of nothing more heartbreaking than the death of one’s child, not to mention having a holiday in which that is celebrated. But there it is, laid out for us to read and commemorate annually (as commanded by Exodus 12:24). It seems odd to have such a solemn event, the death of thousands of people, the majority children, be a highlight of our Passover story. None-the-less, Exodus 12:29-30 is just that.
There are many schools of thought as to why we celebrate the annihilation of an entire generation of children. Among them are the concept of retribution and a related notion of a preemptive warning to future enemies of the Israelites. While we know from earlier biblical readings that the Israelites initially did well in Egypt, they eventually became indentured and then totally enslaved. The brutality the Egyptians brought upon the Israelites was so extreme and brutal that it is tempting to interpret the death of our enemy’s first born as G-d’s vengeance for the violence against the Israelites, his “first born” – that is to write, the first people to accept his covenant. Furthermore, because children are universally treasured, the death of the first born children can clearly be seen as a cautionary tale for the enemies of the Jewish people in perpetuity.
If the tenth plague -- the death of every first born in Egypt whose house was not protected by blood ritually applied to “the lintel and to the two doorposts” -- was to be a death knell from a “Vengeful G-d” or a warning from a “Protective G-d,” then it could be nothing less than a surgical strike directly to the heart of the body Egypt.
The death of one child in every household would be bad enough but insufficient to break the foundation of an entire culture. For that reason, the tenth plague was far more than what it may seem on its surface.
To understand the nature of the tenth plague, we must first look at the hierarchal structure of Egyptian society - the fact that the oldest child had an exalted place in Egyptian family unit. The entire Egyptian legal and social structure was built upon the principle of the rights and privileges of the first born. In fact, Pharaoh himself claimed his power and authority from being the first born (as did his father and grandfather both claim their right as absolute rulers of Egypt by way of being “first born”). This begs a related question – if Pharaoh was the ultimate Egyptian first born, why was he, clearly the most culpable of all Egyptians, spared from the tenth plague while those clearly innocent of any transgressions against the Israelites (such as babies, prisoners and animals) were slaughtered? For the purposes of brevity I will offer but one Midrash of many that could possibly answer as to why G-d spared Pharaoh:
“What does the Torah teach us by saying that the evil Pharaoh was himself a first-born son, yet the punishment was not inflicted upon him? In order to tempt the Egyptians into saying, Pharaoh is tough, which is why he overcame the plague…” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 12).
Why, one might ask, after landing this tenth and final plague, would G-d want the Pharaoh to continue to carry sway over the Egyptian people? As we know from just a few verses more in Exodus, the ten plagues were not the end of the assault to Egypt. Yet one more blow was to be struck and that was the total destruction of Egypt’s military in the Sea of Reeds. G-d required Egypt’s military leaders to continue to respect the direction of Pharaoh so that he may lead them into their final annihilation.
A second reason the plague of the death of the first born was exceedingly harsh to the Egyptians was the fact that contrary to the surface reading of the text, many scholars believe that it was not just one child per a family that was taken but rather the first born child of each father. Thus, the infidelities and declining morality of Egyptian society were exposed when, previously unknown to the father, the illegitimate children in their household perished along with the biological first born.
As told in Midrash: “…and the Egyptians urged the people that they might send them out of the land in haste, for they said, We shall all be dead men. They said, ‘This is not what Moses had decreed, Moses said only the firstborn of Egypt will die.’ They thought whoever had four or five children would only lose the first. They didn't know that their wives were suspected of sexual immorality, and each of "their" children were actually fathered by different young men. They had transgressed secretly, yet God caused it to become known.” (Mechilta Bo)
The tenth plague attacked Egypt on multiple levels – the universal human tragedy of losing one’s child; the hierarchal power structure which was the basis of Egyptian legal system; and the decaying social foundation which was underpinned by the morally corrupt Egyptian family structure. Thus, the death of the “first born” was not simply the death of one child per family – it was in fact the death of Egypt itself.
As your family observes Passover this year, pause at the portion of the Haggadah that recounts the tenth plague and reflect upon the power, awe and mindfulness of G-d. Understand that the Almighty does not kill indiscriminately as illustrated by the tenth and final plague-. The death of the first born child was not simply an assault on Egypt’s youngest children but rather the last punishing blow necessary to collapse an entire civilization.