Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Firstborn Syndrome

The centerpiece of our parsha is the dreaded Tenth Plague. For the first time since creation, the Almighty Himself descends to Earth. Idols melt, the first-born Egyptians die and Pharaoh chases the Jews out of his land. The game is over.

It’s a great climax, however, some elements of this story are just baffling. In preparation for the plague, the Jews are commanded to take a lamb, slaughter it and smear its blood on the doorposts of their homes. If that weren’t strange enough, the Jews are told that this mitzvah is necessary for their own protection.
The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are staying. I will see the blood and pass over you. There will then not be any destructive plague on you when I strike Egypt. (Shemot 12:13)
The Torah takes this very seriously. At the end of the parsha we find a mitzvah for future generations called “Pidyon HaBen,” the “redeeming” of the first born son.
You must redeem every firstborn among your sons. When your son later asks you, “What is this?” you will say to him: “G-d took us out of Egypt, from the house of slaves, with an outstretched arm. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us leave, G-d killed all the firstborn in Egypt… I therefore redeem all the firstborn of my sons.” (Shemot 13:13-15)
What is the meaning of this? Wasn’t the idea of the Tenth Plague to punish the Egyptians and redeem the Jews? Why would the Jews be in danger? And why, of all things, is blood on a doorpost the sign that protects them?

Another question. Why is G-d performing this plague? For the first nine plagues, using Moshe and Aaron as G-d’s agents worked just fine. Why is number ten different?

These are big questions and the full answer probably requires some knowledge of Jewish mysticism. Yes, some things are even beyond Rabbi Gordon. Here we will present some ideas that will, hopefully, at least scratch the surface. If you are still unsatisfied, please contact your local orthodox Kabbalist.

If we are going to understand anything at all, we must begin with an even more basic question. What is the idea of killing the Egyptian firstborn? Without doubting the morality of capital punishment or second-guessing divine justice, we can still ask why the firstborn are being singled out. Is there possibly some deeper message in the Tenth Plague?

Whenever we hear the word “firstborn,” the book of Genesis comes to mind. From the very first firstborn (Cain) who murdered his younger brother, through the string of firstborns who were stripped of their birthright (Yishmael, Esav and Reuven), firstborns haven’t come off looking very good. There must be some connection here, but barring a divine vendetta against first-born boys, what is it?

Well, what does a firstborn symbolize? What is a firstborn in the abstract? For the answer to this question, we would do well to confront the realities of birth order effects. While stereotyping is unfair, studies published by Frank J. Sulloway in his book "Born to Rebel" support some common observations:

Firstborns dominate and reign supreme in their world. Idealized and idolized by parents and siblings alike, firstborns sometimes end up being aggressive, exacting, fearful and concerned with power. As many parents can attest, the jealousy and anger of older siblings toward their younger brothers and sisters can be fierce. (Yehuda, if you’re reading this, please don’t take it personally!)

Egypt had a bad case of the firstborn syndrome. They were the superpower, but frightened by the success of the Jews, they oppressed them. The Egyptians answered to no one, not even G-d. They abused the power of their position and refused to be humbled (cf. 10:3), so G-d humbled them and eliminated their firstborn, both allegorically and literally. G-d then grants national firstborn status to the Jewish people.
You must say to Pharaoh, “This is what G-d says: Israel is My son, My firstborn.” (Shemot 4:22)
If the book of Genesis is the story of firstborns abusing their siblings, disgracing their birthright, and witnessing the transfer of primacy and legacy to their younger brothers as a result, then the book of Exodus is the very same story writ large.

This is all fine and good, but most of our questions remain unanswered. Why were the Jews threatened by the final plague? Why the need for blood on the doorposts? And why is G-d performing the Tenth Plague all by Himself?

For the answer to these questions, it may be helpful to go back to G-d’s original plan for the universe. In the beginning, throughout the creation story, the Torah used the divine name of “Elokim” exclusively. This name connotes strict justice. However, as soon as creation is complete, the Torah sums it up in the very next verse: “These are the chronicles of heaven and earth when they were created, on the day that Hashem (Y-H-V-H) Elokim completed earth and heaven” (Bereishit 2:4). Here we are introduced to the ineffable four-letter name of G-d, “Y-H-V-H,” the name of divine compassion. Thereafter, the Torah uses both names together. Why the change?

The Midrash explains that initially G-d wished to create a world of strict justice, an “Elokim” universe. However, G-d knew that such a world would quickly be destroyed – man could not long survive under the rule of uncompromising justice and instant retribution. So G-d “partnered” Elokim, justice, with Y-H-V-H, compassion, to create a balanced world of justice and love. Within such a world, man could grow spiritually over time without fear of being struck down by lightening at the slightest sin.

It seems that G-d’s “Plan A” was an idealized, perfectionist, dominating, “Elokim” world. It was G-d’s firstborn, but He nixed it; mortals could never live up to that standard. Compassion was woven into the fabric of justice to create our current, flexible reality.

That was the creation story, but now G-d wants to break the rules. G-d has run out of patience with the Egyptians and He wants to punish them with the full force of His wrath, but there’s a problem. The design of the world incorporates compassion and does not allow for unmitigated justice. So G-d had to take this job into His own hands.

G-d walks into Egypt and all bets are off. The Almighty is in Elokim mode and under such conditions, every other source of power, real or imagined, simply evaporates. Even the firstborn Jews, whom G-d has come to save, are in danger of being overcome by the force of Elokim in their midst. Only one thing can save them. Blood. But not just any blood. The blood of mitzvah.

Only by humbling themselves before the will of G-d, surrendering before the master of life and death, and faithfully offering a sacrifice to the only true power and authority, can the firstborn Jews survive the divine revelation of the Tenth Plague. When G-d sees that, He has found a firstborn He can love.


  1. Just some comments:
    1. For the first 5 plagues HaShem did not harden Pharoah's heart. He gave Pharoah free will to turn from his haughtiness and arrogance. So, Pharoah hardened his own heart and did not repent. The number 5 represents completeness, so Pharoah for plagues 6-10 was directly under the control of HaShem and the outcome was clear from plagues 6-10.
    2. The first born- The Egyptians probably were rising up in revolt when they heard the announcement by Moshe during the day that their first-born would start dying after midnight.They believed him, by this time; however, Pharoah, with his hardened heart could not repent. Thus, his personal disaster upon seeing his successor dead was all the more striking to him.
    3. Blood on the doorposts- I assume this entered into the Temple service whereby blood is sprinkled and handled in a specific manner.. Today, it has lost its meaning without the Temple.

  2. Going back to an older question: Why is it clearly written that HaShem did not himself harden Pharoah's heart for the first 5 plagues, as he did for the second set of 5 plagues? Somehow, this gives me the impression that there could be an uncertainty as to the outcome during the first 5 plagues; or, HaShem does not know the exact outcome, but only the multitude of possible outcomes.(After the 5th plague, he then knew the exact outcome).