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.
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Parashat Bo 5763/ January 11, 2003

Nine Plagues and One More - The Uniqueness of the Tenth Plague

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 dead" (12:29-30).

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 (Bo, 7):

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 (Mekhilta, Bo):

"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 explanation:

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."