Bo: Surprising Takes on The Plague of the First-Born

The plague that seems most harsh and most simple is anything but...

Table for Five: Bo

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

I will pass through the land of Egypt on this night, and I will smite every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast, and upon all the gods of Egypt will I wreak judgments, I the LORD. Ex. 12:12


Rabbi Mark Blazer, Temple Beth Ami

As a vegetarian and a human who is concerned for the welfare of animals, I am troubled by the biblical instances of fauna being caught up in human punishment. Several times animals seem to be collateral damage in Divine wrath, including the previous plagues. Now in the final plague, though we sometimes forget, the first-born animals are smitten too.

Some have speculated this was necessitated by the worship practices of the Egyptians, as clearly the tenth plague is a chastisement of their entire system. Yet as we have seen in other biblical accounts, animals are often swept up in the human drama, for destruction as well as protection. In just the previous chapter we read that the dogs in Egypt will not even bark during the Israelite Exodus and the Midrash teaches, consequently, they will be rewarded by being able to devour meat that is thrown to the them.

The harsh reality is that we have witnessed in our own day how our animal companions suffer in disasters. It’s estimated that over 500,000 pets died or were abandoned after Hurricane Katrina. Yet, this tragedy also brought individuals from around the country to rescue thousands of pets and led to positive changes in legislation affecting animal evacuation. We are grateful for the heroes, many of them inspired by Jewish tradition, (eg. The Gentle Barn), working to help us all become better stewards of the animal world as the Eternal intended (Genesis 1:26-28).


Dr. Erica Rothblum, Head of School, Pressman Academy

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers that the tenth plague was the enactment of retributive justice, so that the Egyptians could fully understand the depths of their sins. Whether they actively enslaved and killed the Israelites or silently stood by, the Egyptians were complicit in the abusive treatment of the Israelites. This pasuk helps illuminate the fact that all Egyptians were responsible, whether or not they actively participated.

From this we can also extrapolate the Torah’s commandment for our role in modern day — when we see injustices occurring, we must speak up. As Ellie Wiesel famously shared, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Over and over, our tradition tells us to do the right thing, to care for the needy, widows, orphans and the stranger, and to seek justice and pursue it. In fact, 36 times we are told to “Love the stranger as yourself” – there is no other commandment or prohibition that is mentioned as often as this one.

This pasuk, in contrast, is reminding us that we must actively love the stranger as ourselves. It is not enough to remain silent and neutral, we must be on the side of justice. We must actively shelter and support those in need, we must actively protest against those who do harm. If there is any injustice against a stranger – even if we were simply silent while someone else committed the injustice – we are still responsible. Our lives depend on it.


David Porush, Ph.D., student, teacher, author at davidporush.com

Anochi HaShem, I the L-rd.

G-d is personally coming to perform the tenth, most awful miracle Himself. A midrash says that some Egyptians, hearing the pronouncement, sought refuge among their Hebrew neighbors. G-d plucks them out, too, just as He isolates only firstborn men and beasts from their siblings for doom.

Pharaoh’s wizard-scribes already acknowledged this superior transcendent power after the third plague. They realize they can’t simulate the invisibility, ubiquity, or particularity of the lice that afflict only Egyptians. “It’s the Finger of HaShem!” they cry.

One humble word in our verse emphasizes this Divine particularity: “hazeh, this.” On thisnight He will pass through personally. The Passover seder repeats it over and over, halailah hazeh: Why is this night different?

We say hazeh at the end of the shehecheyanu prayer, thanking G-d for bringing us to thismoment of particular joy at a shared holiday, and also when a child is born or we land in Israel or even, especially, at surprising coincidences, like bumping into an old friend. By sanctifying these intimate moments, we dispel the illusion that our lives, that life itself, are merely accidents produced by mechanical forces acting on things. Rather, every tick of life, every hazeh, every quantum possibility in the universe comes to fruition with an infinitely complex artistry and intention beyond comprehension, and so each moment deserves gratitude.

In the tenth plague, G-d also destroys false gods, including the belief that the cosmos is only made of stuff and coincidences.


Racheli Luftglass, Director of Judaic Studies, YULA Girls High School

The misspoken “Mommy/Morah” slip-ups that educators often witness illustrates that appellations change depending upon contextual roles and characteristics we portray. The same is true of God: at times He chooses to relate to humanity with strict justice through the name Elokim, while other times He exudes the mercies of the name HaShem.

If the makkot, plagues, were solely intended for the audience of Pharaoh, either to force his hand or as retributive justice for oppressing God’s own firstborn, we’d have expected the voice of Elokim rather than HaShem portrayed here. But the message of the makkot, and of makkat bechorot plague of the firstborn, in particular – the climax of the Abrahamic covenantal redemptive promise – was as much a formative tool of nation-building for the soon-to-be redeemed Israelites as a punishment for Egyptian malfeasance.

“Sof ma’aseh b’machshavah techila/the final outcome has been conceived at the outset.” Even prior to Moshe’s arrival in Egypt, as a prelude to the entire narrative (Exodus 4:22-23), God had already pre-ordained that only makkat bechorot would be the trigger of deliverance. For the audience of the emerging Jewish nation, and for us daily, there is comfort knowing that, through trial and tribulation, there is a pre-existing plan.

Although the ferocious nature of the makkot may seem capricious, God is consistent and methodical. Being equipped with that knowledge is compassionately comforting, intrinsically merciful, and faith-generating. And in that consistency, HaShem planted within us seeds of resilience that have the power to transform a family of shepherds into a nation of believers.


Rabbi David Block, Associate Head of School, Shalhevet HS

Sure, Egypt’s atrocities were deserving of a cataclysmic plague. But why the firstborn? Were they solely responsible for Israel’s servitude? Hardly. And, what does “wreaking judgement” on Egypt’s gods have anything to do with the killing of Egypt’s firstborn?

The biggest mistake we can make is to read this pasuk in isolation. Back in Shemos 4, God charges Moshe to tell Pharaoh: “Israel is my firstborn… if you refuse to free them, I will kill your firstborn” (Exodus 4:23). Karma. But is Israel really God’s firstborn? Surely, many nations existed before it.

The bechor (firstborn) is an archetype, as R. David Fohrman explains. Parents have a challenge: How can they transmit values to the next generation? The gap seems vast, insurmountable. The bridge is the firstborn – the child closest in age both to the parents and to the other children. Significantly, it’s not always the actual firstborn who embraces that role; Bereishis (Genesis) shows, over and over again, that anyone who chooses to transmit the parents’ values is considered a bechor. Indeed, that’s the story of Israel: They weren’t first, but when they chose to accept God’s charge – to bring Godly values to the world – they became the firstborn, God’s bechor.

The plague was symbolic. God’s message was this: If you refuse to let my firstborn transmit My values to the world, I’ll ensure that your firstborn can’t transmit your pagan values to your children. Your immorality dies here. That was the ultimate “judgement” against and downfall of Egypt’s “gods.”

With thanks to Rabbi Mark Blazer, Rabbi David Block, Dr. Erica Rothblum, David Porush, and Racheli Luftglass.

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