Who Really Killed the Egyptians' Firstborn Sons?

There are two main differences between this 10th plague and the nine that preceded it that I wish to focus on. First of all, in all of the other plagues, the Israelites were spared automatically. For this one, though, they are given explicit instructions as to what they must do to be spared. They have to prepare a sacrificial lamb, smear the blood on their door posts and lintels, and eat the sacrifice together with matza and bitter herbs. Further, they must eat it in a state of readiness to depart, with staff in hand.

The second difference is that this plague is preceded by a number of seemingly tangential commandments, especially the one about tefillin, or, phylacteries. These are small boxes containing chapters from the Torah that are tied onto the arm and the forehead during prayer services.

Why these differences? Why is it so critical for the Israelites to perform this sacrificial ritual, and what is the relevance of the commandment of tefillin?

God does not engage in punishment as vengeance. When there is divine punishment, it is didactic. It is to teach man to correct his ways. Jewish tradition teaches that God's punishments are "measure for measure," meaning that they directly address the sinful attitude of the transgressor. This is no more apparent than in the most famous of Biblical dictums on Justice: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a leg for a leg, and so forth.

In many parts of the world, this principle is interpreted literally, and that is a tragedy. Jewish law states that what is required by this dictum is monetary compensation, not the amputation of the limb of the aggressor. Simple justice requires this understanding! Let's say, for example, that a singer cut off the hand of a pianist. Is justice served by cutting off the hand of the singer? The pianist has lost his livelihood, while the singer can continue unharmed! That is not justice.

But there is a more fundamental understanding of this dictum that we must learn. It is that punishment is not vengeance. Those who interpret this literally make a tragic mistake, understanding punishment as a form of doing to the aggressor what he did to the victim. He caused the victim great pain, so he should suffer accordingly. What this understanding says is that the past is what matters. A. caused B. to suffer in the immediate past, so he must suffer as well.

That is not what the Torah teaches. When we evaluate the monetary worth of the severed limb, and require the perpetrator to pay that, we are stressing two things. First of all, that the future is the most important element. The aggressor has denied the victim their capabilities for the future, and it is that which must be compensated. Secondly, it focuses the aggressor on what he has done to the victim. He must think of how he has changed that person's life. We have suddenly moved our focus from the perpetrator himself to the other, to the victim.

Now we can explain the plague of the firstborn in greater depth. Egypt was a completely self-absorbed nation. It was the home of all manner of sexual licentiousness, and a pagan belief system that elevated material possessions and wealth and power. It was a society that lived for pleasure, that lived for today. This goes in direct opposition to human nature.

Human nature is built upon planting trees, upon beautifying the world for others, for the future. Our spirit drives us to sacrifice our rest and sloth to go out and build something for posterity. For this, our children are not only recipients, but transmitters into the continuing future. We are not to teach them to pursue pleasure, we are to teach them to pursue responsibility and posterity.

The Egyptians taught their children something else. They taught them hedonism, materialism, pursuit of fleeting pleasures and possessions. God brought the 10th plague, the slaying of the firstborn, as a lesson to the Egyptians: by living your lives according to your false values, you have spiritually killed your own children.

We see in the world around us tragic examples of child destruction in a spiritual sense. How can we watch the Isis terrorists teaching young children to kill without our feeling deep sadness and revulsion? And if those children get killed in some future battle, who are the real killers? I would say the grown-ups who trained them to walk down that tragic path.

Thus, the Israelites must prepare for this plague as well by reaffirming their commitment to the future. They are to eat the Passover sacrifice in readiness to march, staff in hand. This entire ritual is to cause them to embrace the future, to commit to transmitting their spiritual heritage to their children, their children's children, and beyond, into eternity. By doing this, they save their firstborn spiritually, and they are spared the plague of the Egyptians.

What is the legacy they are to transmit? In one word, Torah. God's Word is the spiritual life of the universe. The tefillin, with the four chapters of Torah within them, must be tied upon our arms and our heads. They must guide our actions and our thoughts. They are the keys to the future, they are the keys to giving spiritual life to our children. The answers to all of life's mysteries and questions can be found in the Torah, but only by delving deep into its secrets. This commitment is what gives us life, and what gives us true meaning.

Why Slavery?

The Israelites were commanded to have a Passover offering, a lamb, on that fateful night of liberation. Part of that command involves their wardrobe while eating the sacrifice. "Your loins shall be girded, your staves in hand and your shoes on your feet." Why specify what they Israelites were to wear?

My teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, explained the singular historical fact that Jewish liberation never followed the pattern of many other liberation movements. The French Revolution, for example, was followed by a bloodbath of all those who were deemed enemies of the regime. The same happened in many other countries throughout history. When one group rebelled and took control, they usually became equally barbaric to those whom they had just defeated.

Not so the Jewish people. The Israelites were commanded to "love the Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land." On the surface, one would think they should avenge all of the suffering they were put through! Certainly on a natural level, the Israelites should have desired to smash a few Egyptian faces. Nothing of the sort happened. How is that possible?

I believe there were two critical reasons for the Israelites to be enslaved in Egypt. They both relate to God's ultimate purpose for this world -- Tikkun, correcting. Fixing that which is broken takes precedence, in God's hierarchy of priorities, over rewarding that which is already fixed. As they say, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. We are all part of the chain of humanity and human history, and as such, must make sure that the weakest links will still hold under pressure.

God's main tool for fixing the world is none other than the nation of Israel. I believe that's why our history has been what it's been. All of that oppression prepared us to go forth and fix the world. How so?

First of all, I believe we were enslaved in order to impress upon us the urgency of this mission. By experiencing suffering, by experiencing the worst injustice in this world, we become sensitized to the need to rid the world of such things. The people of Israel are always in the forefront of the fight for human rights and human welfare. We simply can't stand suffering, and dedicate ourselves towards its alleviation. Jews are always working to find the cure to the worst diseases, marching for the rights of the oppressed, contributing huge amounts of charity to help the poor, to strengthen education, to fix the world! This sensitivity is a direct outgrowth of our having "been there".

The nation that left Egypt marched forth with a sense of mission. We were headed for Mount Sinai, we were headed to receive God's law and finally understand how to make this world a beautiful place for all those who live in it. But still, why was that not also the case in the French Revolution? Why did those who rebelled for equality and brotherhood become oppressors who denied the equality and brotherhood of others?

This question brings me to the second reason for the Egyptian slavery. It was so that we do not become overly attached to this material world. It was so that we disdain physical things, and elevate spiritual purpose above all else. Egypt was a deeply materialistic society. It was hedonistic, licentious. Wealth and power were the highest attributes one could aspire to.

I believe that the terrible cruelty of the Egyptians made the Israelites reject them and their materialistic culture. One rabbi, a Holocaust survivor, once commented that he expected the Jewish people to forever reject all Western culture after the second world war. It should have been seen as being worthless, if such "high culture" could not prevent the countries that practiced it from becoming barbarians. It would've been expected for the Jews to throw out the German poetry and music that covered over the deep hatred that resided in their souls.

In truth, it is not the culture that was to blame. It was the elevation of that culture above all else. It was the stress put on the pleasures, physical or emotional, of this material world. The Israelites learned to put this world in its place. They learn to keep physical things subservient to spiritual things. When you are a slave, this physical world holds no attractions for you. A piece of bread is the most precious thing in the world to a man who is starving.

Rabbi Soloveichik stresses that there were two elements of liberation at the time of the exodus. First, there was the physical liberation from slavery. If that were all there was, though, we probably would have descended into vengeful behavior. After all, if this world is about feeling good, then we should want to punish those who made us feel bad. That, in and of itself, would probably feel good.

So there was a need for another element of liberation. Spiritual freedom. Spiritual freedom is only possible when we are not enslaved by our physical desires. That is the meaning of the wardrobe requirements of the liberation evening. Girding our loins means subjugating our physical drives to the spiritual goal of reaching Mount Sinai. We did not leave Egypt to feel good. We left Egypt in order to fix the world. That is the highest spiritual goal anyone could set.

In a sense, one could say that without the spiritual liberation, there really was no freedom. Yes, we would be losing the Egyptian taskmaster, but gaining the taskmaster of our own uncontrollable drives. Spiritual liberation, which is only possible through controlling our physical desires and de-emphasizing the material world, is what really set us free.

Thus, we gained two crucial tools for our job of fixing the world. We gained a sensitivity to all human suffering, and we gained an understanding that the spiritual, not the physical, is the key to true freedom. Without both of those elements together, you could not succeed in our mission. With them, we are and we will.