The Significance of the Tenth

Bo By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jan 15, 1994 / 5754 | Torah Commentary

The tenth plague finally shatters Pharaoh’s resistance. The sudden death in a single night of “all the first-born in the land of Egypt from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle” is singularly devastating and beyond all natural explanation (Exodus 12:29). It is, in a word, a miracle, attributable only to the awesome power of Moses’ God. Pharaoh is not only vanquished but also converted. As he urges Moses and Aaron to lead their untouched slaves out of Egypt immediately, leaving nothing behind, and to worship their Lord, he adds desperately if sheepishly, “And may you bring a blessing upon me also! (Exodus 12:32)”

What are we to make of this denouement? Without the benefit of history or science is there anything left to say? I think there is, but only from a literary perspective. It is the choice of the tenth plague that attracts my attention. After all, God could have finished Pharaoh off with any number of knockout punches. Is there a reason why God chose to deliver that final blow by killing the first-born?

Certainly God had hinted to Moses of a larger context that determined the choice. Right after the experience of the burning bush, on his way back to Egypt, Moses was informed by God that Pharaoh would be a defiant and formidable foe. Indeed, God would repeatedly harden his heart.

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.’ (Exodus 4:22-23)

To digress for a moment, the prospect thoroughly traumatized Moses. He had accepted the task of national leadership reluctantly. At the bush God had concealed from him exactly how protracted the struggle would be. Once again ambivalence overtakes him. Could God really deliver on the promise to kill Pharaoh’s first-born? God responds swiftly and almost demoniacally in the dark of the night with an assault on Moses’ own son, a brutal lesson in divine power. Only the quick intervention by Zipporah saves the child. She circumcises him, drawing blood, and the terror passes over, foreshadowing the night of national redemption. Moses’ faith is restored. God will prevail against Pharaoh. I believe that the sequence of the two passages in the text (Exodus 4:21-26), helps to explain the enigma of the second.

But to return to the first, God’s declaration links the status of Israel as God’s first-born son to the death of the first-born of Egypt. The exodus is perceived by the Torah as an act of adoption and rejection. The display of divine concern for Israel creates a covenantal relationship between God and a relatively new and insignificant people, even as it signifies the repudiation of an ancient and world-class civilization. The antiquity of a nation counts for little in the divine economy.The converse of Israel’s chosenness, the tenth plague is the final expression of the motif that dominated the book of Genesis. Throughout we saw demotion and derogation of the first-born son, from Cain to Reuben. God’s favor consistently fell on younger siblings. Not birth but character is the decisive quality for leadership. The shift from primogeniture to morality allows for religious meritocracy and justifies God’s selection of Israel. The death of Egypt’s first-born symbolizes a revolution in religious thought.

Up to a point even the best of revolutions are incomplete. The Mosaic one tried at first to preserve a vestige of primogeniture. The first-born males of Israel belonged to God and were to be redeemed. Their special status served as a reminder of the redemption from Egypt and the decimation of its first- born. Israel’s priests were drawn from the class of first-born males, not unlike the Egyptian practice. Only after the debacle of the golden calf were they stripped of that role. Like their compatriots they too had failed to maintain their trust in Moses and faith in God. In consequence, Moses transferred all priestly duties to the Levites, who hailed from his own tribe, because they stood by him loyally in the hour of mass defection. But even they still embodied the principle of religious leadership by inheritance rather than ability.

Not till the rabbinic era in the wake of the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. did Judaism approximate a democratic ethos which opened the ranks of leadership to all men of learning and piety irrespective of birth. It was a momentous step forward that held firm in the Middle Ages to be completed in our own day by the equally courageous admission of qualified women into the rabbinate. I am confident that the latter expansion of the rabbinate will strengthen Judaism as much as the former. True progress comes in stages.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Bo are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld