Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Parashat Bo 5763/ January 11, 2003
Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty
of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.
A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies,
Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center,
and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet
under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's
International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet
Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Bo 5763/ January 11, 2003
Nine Plagues and One More - The Uniqueness of the
Rabbi Dr. Isaac Kraus
Bar -Ilan University Midrasha Lebanot
The tenth plague, the slaying of Egypt's first-born, was
the plague that defeated Pharaoh in his struggle against the Lord, but in fact
we knew about this calamity from the outset. Before Moses had his first
encounter with Pharaoh, the Lord said to him: "I, however, will stiffen
his heart so that he will not let the people go" (Ex. 4:21). In other
words, the plagues that Egypt would have to suffer would not soften his hard
heart. And so at the same time, the Lord revealed to Moses the end of the
confrontation: "Then you shall say to Pharaoh, 'Thus says the Lord:
Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you, "Let My son go, that he
may worship Me," yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your
first-born son'" (Ex. 4:22-23). The high point of the confrontation
would revolve around "Israel, My first-born son" as opposed to
"your first-born son."
The question we pose here is whether the plague of the
first-born cast the decisive blow because it followed nine others, or because
this plague was different from all those that preceded it? Did we have ten
plagues, or nine and then one?
The plague of the first-born was indeed unique on two levels:
first, in its presentation in the text. As we noted above, the plague of the
firstborn is hinted at from the very outset. This plague was not accompanied by
the usual structure of the plagues-- warning, description of the plague, and
Pharaoh's request that the plague be lifted. After the plague of darkness
Pharaoh banished Moses from his sight; so Moses gave him no warning, rather he
announced to him what lay in store: "Thus says the Lord: Toward midnight
I will go forth among the Egyptians, and every first-born in the land of Egypt
shall die" (Ex. 11:4-5). Moses emphasized that the firstborn of the
Israelites would not be touched, "in order that you may know that the Lord
makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel" (v. 7).
After such a pronouncement we might expect the Torah to
proceed to a description of the plague itself, but that is not the case. The
Torah at this point begins the passage that reads, "This month shall mark
for you the beginning of the months"(Ex. 12:1), which includes the
commandment of the Pascal sacrifice and the other laws pertaining to the
festival. In the context of the commandment regarding the Pascal sacrifice, the
imminent plague of the first-borns is described: "For ... I will ...
strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt" (12:12). This is
related to the command to slaughter the Pascal lamb and to put its blood on the
doors of the Israelites' homes. The plague of the first-borns is then
described in extreme brevity, in two verses: "In the middle of the night
the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, ... there was a
loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone
The second level on which this plague differs is
philosophical. As explained above, most of the verses on the plague of the
first-born concern the Israelites' preparations to protect themselves from
this scourge, and not a description of the plague itself. This need for
protection demands an explanation. Could the Lord not distinguish between the
homes of the Israelites and those of the Egyptians? Why would He need a sign on
the doorways of their homes? Indeed, Rabbi Ishmael asked in the Mekhilta
Is not everything known to Him, as it is said, "He ...
knows what is in the darkness, and light dwells with Him" (Dan. 2:22)?
And it is said, "Darkness is not dark for You" (Ps. 139:12). So
what is the Torah trying to teach us by saying, "when I see the
blood" (Ex. 12:13)?
Similarly Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel asked in his commentary (Ch.
12, fifth question):
The words, "when I see the blood I will pass over
you," seem to indicate that if He did not see it, that home would be
struck by the plague. But how could that be? For the Egyptians deserved the
plague for the evil they had done the Israelites, but why should the Israelites
be put to death? What had they done? If the plague were by divine providence,
how could it strike the righteous along with the wicked? Moreover, in the other
plagues that were carried out by intermediaries the Lord discriminated between
the Israelites and the Egyptians, so that they were not punished along with
them, yet they had not put a sign on their homes? Whey, then, with this plague
was discriminating made conditional on the sign of blood on the houses, when the
one carrying it out was the Omniscient, Blessed be He?
The answer to the questions posed by Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi
Abarbanel points to the plague of the first-born being unique in its objective.
True, it struck at the Egyptians and it was the blow that led to the release of
the Israelites; but the Lord had many ways of bringing about the liberation of
the people of Israel, so why did He choose precisely this way? It seems that
this plague was designed not only to bring the Egyptians to surrender, but first
and foremost to affect the people of Israel. In the plague of the first-born,
also the people of Israel were put to the test.
In Midrash Tehillim (Buber ed., Psalm 15) it is
claimed, "Both these and those worshipped pagan gods." So wherein
was Israel better? To this question, where was the merit of the Israelites
[Editor's note: see the article on Shemot by D. Ganz, on this subject]
Rabbi Ishmael in the Mekhilta ( loc. sit.) responded: "So what is
the Torah trying to teach us by saying, "when I see the blood" (Ex.
12:13)? None other than that as a reward for the commandment which you keep I
shall reveal Myself to you and take mercy on you, as it is said, "I will
pass over you'".
This same idea finds expression in the Midrash that describes
the condition of the Israelites on the eve of their deliverance from Egypt as
"naked and bare" (Ezek. 16:7), bare of good deeds. The Lord's
command to take a lamb and offer it as a Pascal sacrifice obligated the
Israelites to perform two mitzvot: circumcision, since "no
uncircumcised person may eat of it" (Ex. 12:48), and slaughtering the
Pascal offering. On this the prophet Ezekiel said, "I said to you:
'Live in spite of your blood.' Yea, I said to you: 'Live in
spite of your blood'" (Ezek. 16:7); since on the merit of these two
shows of blood, circumcision and the Pascal lamb, they were delivered.
Thus we see that the main manifestation of this plague was
expressed precisely in the fact that the Lord passed over the houses of the
Israelites, and not in the blow delivered against the first-borns of Egypt.
Therefore Scripture is so brief in its description of the plague itself, since
the main point lay in the Israelites' concern with the commandments of
Passover. Such a view fits in with Rabbi Nathan's remark on the verse
"And apply some of the blood ... to the lintel and to
the two doorposts" - inside or only outside? ... Rabbi Nathan said
on the inside, for if you ask whether it was on the inside or only the outside,
we note that the Torah says, "and the blood ... shall be a sign for
you" - a sign for you, not a sign for others.
The significance of Rabbi Nathan's remark was that
applying the blood to the doorposts was not to mark the houses of the Israelites
for G-d's eyes, as it were, since everything was revealed and known to
Him, but for the sake of the Israelites themselves, so that they realize their
uniqueness as Israel, the Lord's first-born.
Every day in our morning prayers we recall the redemption from
Egypt: "All of their first-borns You killed and your first-born, Israel,
You redeemed." But the Lord delivered the entire people of Israel, so why
are only the first-born mentioned here? This is answered in Or ha-Hayyim
on Parshat Bo, after several preliminary questions preceding the
I saw fit to offer a reason why the exodus of the Israelites
was not until after the plague of the first-born. Moreoever, why did the Lord
smite even those first-borns who were not Egyptian, as it says "the
first-born of the captive"?
In his response, the author of Or ha-Hayyim says that
the objective of the plague of the first-born was to make clear the first-born
rights of Israel, to establish that they indeed deserve the title,
"Israel, My first-born." In other words, "and your
first-born, Israel, You redeemed" in the daily prayer means "all of
the Israelites, who are called your firstborn".
The people of Israel proved they were worthy of first-born
status by the devotion they showed on the eve of redemption, devotion that was
evidenced in the blood of the Pascal sacrifice and in the blood of circumcision.
It was this that made their sanctity clear and it was this that elevated them
from the depths of forty-nine levels of impurity to the stature of
"Israel, My first-born."