Why is the killing of the firstborn the final, and most significant, plague? True, it brought death into every household, rattling Egypt at its foundations, but certainly the plagues of hail — really, fire in blocks of ice falling from the sky — or total, crippling darkness for three days and nights were not inconsequential demonstrations of God’s power. Any of these plagues could have dealt a knockout punch to the most cold-hearted of dictators. What, then, is it about the killing of the firstborn that proved most effective?
I suggest that it is because it destroyed a certain institution of ancient culture that God found objectionable — primogeniture, the primacy and veneration of the firstborn. Turning to the earliest pages of Genesis, we find the theme of the firstborn early in the Torah, when sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel is translated into the rejection and acceptance of their respective sacrifices to God: The hypocritical gift of the firstborn Cain is rejected, while the more sincere offering of the younger Abel is accepted.
Part of Cain’s vexation is due to the fact that he sees his firstborn status as having been overlooked — and indeed it was, since sincerity of devotion is ultimately more important than order of birth.
Thus, Abraham’s eldest son, Ishmael, must step aside for the younger Isaac because the former is a metzahek — a scorner and an adulterer — which renders him unfit for the birthright. Of Isaac’s two sons, Esau must give way to Jacob, since the former scorned the birthright, first by selling it for a mess of pottage and then by taking Hittite wives.
Jacob also has a firstborn, Reuben, but having “moved” his father’s bed — either an attempt to determine with whom his father would sleep after the death of Rachel, or a euphemism for illicit relations with his father’s concubine — he is deemed unfit. In his place, leadership passes to Judah and Joseph.
With the birth of the Jewish people in the Book of Exodus, a revolutionary concept emerges on the world stage: The prevailing rule of the firstborn rapidly comes to an end. Indeed, the essence of the Egyptian-Hebrew confrontation boils down to the idea that if you’re born an Egyptian, you have the right to enslave, and if you’re born a Hebrew, you become a slave.
Slavery was not exclusive to Egypt. The Greeks and the Romans believed that anyone born into a race other than theirs was barbaric, and that they had the moral right to enslave all barbarians.
Indeed, less than 150 years ago, a bloody war was fought in the United States because nearly half the country chose secession rather than adhering to the law that condemned slavery as illegal. And 75 years ago, the free world was threatened by a nation that believed in the Aryan right to dominate and exterminate.
From the moment it began its ascent in the world, Judaism’s message has been that an individual’s merits are more important than an individual’s genealogy. Therefore, the killing of the firstborn of the Egyptians not only strikes terror in the heart of every household member, it also tolls the death knell for the revered institution of the firstborn.
Many generations later, following the destruction of the Second Commonwealth, and in the absence of a priesthood and monarchy, the rabbinic sages emerged as the leaders of the Jewish people. These scholars taught — and demonstrated — the principle of meritocracy: One becomes a leader through study and devotion, not as a result of yichus (ancestry). A prime example of this can be found in the teaching from the Mishnah: “A mamzer [person born of adultery or incest] who is a Torah scholar takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest.”
The Talmud expands this concept: “‘You shall therefore observe My statutes, and My ordinances, which if a adam [human] does, he shall live by them’ [Leviticus 18:5]. Rabbi Meir says that the Torah’s choice of the word adam means that a non-Jew who observes the Torah and mitzvot is as great as the High Priest.”
This revolutionary — and fundamentally democratic — message is one of Judaism’s great lessons for humanity. This concept, so central to the idea of the Exodus, can and should empower all people, Jews and non-Jews alike, to throw off their shackles of genealogy and birth order, and attempt to attain true freedom. Ultimately, only those who dream the impossible will ever achieve the incredible.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat.