Parshas Bo: The Plague of the Firstborn & Eternal Memory

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Bo, the Hebrew slaves begin their long march to freedom.  After ten destructive plagues, which decimate a once powerful Pharaonic Egypt, Pharaoh relents and lets the Israelites go free. 

It is the tenth and final plague, Maakas Bechoros (death to the firstborn), which ultimately convinces Pharaoh that keeping the Israelites a moment longer is not beneficial to him or his countrymen.  Until now – from Blood to Darkness – he has resisted.  With Egyptians now dying in every home of Egypt, he can no longer hold back. 

The pasuk tells us: וַיְהִי בַּחֲצִי הַלַּיְלָה, וַה’ הִכָּה כָל-בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, מִבְּכֹר פַּרְעֹה הַיֹּשֵׁב עַל-כִּסְאוֹ, עַד בְּכוֹר הַשְּׁבִי אֲשֶׁר בְּבֵית הַבּוֹר; וְכֹל, בְּכוֹר בְּהֵמָה – And it was at midnight, that Hashem smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who is in the dungeon, and every firstborn animal (Shemos 12:29).

Rashi (ibid) tells us that Pharaoh too was a bechor, a firstborn!  It is no wonder then, that it was in response to this plague that Pharaoh called to Moshe and Aharon in the middle of the night and said: Get up!  Get out from my nation, also you and also the Children of Israel, and go, worship your G-d as you have spoken! (12:31)

Why were the Egyptians punished with this final blow, the death of the firstborn?  The Kli Yakar (7:17) teaches: מכת בכורות בא עליהם, לפי שרצו לאבד בנו בכורו ישראל – the plague of the firstborn came upon them, because they wanted to obliterate His (G-d’s) firstborn, the nation of Israel. 

Rav Soloveitchik zt’l teaches, “With the passage of time, the outrage of the murder of the male children by the Egyptians was forgotten.  Those events happened when Moshe was an infant, some eighty years before the Exodus.  Eventually, the edict to murder the sons was abolished, and a new king arose with his own laws.  He forgot about the law issued by his predecessor, and did not continue the same policy when Moshe came back as an old man.  Sons were not murdered anymore.  Even the parents themselves – those whose children had been taken away – no longer remembered.  They complained against the intolerable hard labor pressing upon them.  But the remembrance that eighty years earlier Pharaoh had in his statute book an inhumane law that every male infant be killed was completely forgotten.  They turned a new page in history, forgot what had happened, and did not mention it in their prayers, which were devoted to complaining about the physical labor (see 2:23) – not about children who were killed decades ago.

“But G-d did not forget.  G-d insisted that the Egyptians, whether under the same Pharaoh or under his successor, would have to pay for the lives which were extinguished years ago.  In the Haggadah, we read: ve’es amaleinu (and our toil) – eilu ha’banim (these are the sons) – this refers to the sons whom we had forgotten, whose tragic martyred deaths were not mentioned in our prayers” (Chumash Masores HaRav, Shemos, p.97).

For the crime, the sadism, the inhumanity, the cruelty, the wickedness of drowning our sons in the Nile – albeit some eighty years ago – Pharaoh and his countrymen would now pay back for the Jewish deaths.

The Sages teach us that Jews are obligated to walk in the ways of G-d, so to speak, to emulate His middos (His ways) (BT Sotah 14a).  As He is merciful and compassionate, as He visits the sick and clothes the unclothed, as He buries the dead and comforts the mourner, so too must we.  As He does, we must strive to do.  This is how we may practically and meaningfully fulfill the command to “walk in His ways.”

To the nations of the world, Jewish blood may come and go, yet the Almighty never forgets.  And if we are commanded to go in His ways by emulating His deeds, so to speak, then we must ensure that we too never forget…

Rabbi Razeil Shevach HY”D z’l, 35, left behind his wife Yael and six orphans, ages 10 years – 10 months.   The morning after the attack, his widow, Yael, said, “We decided together with the family to bury my beloved husband Raziel, may G-d avenge his blood, in Havat Gilad.  Raziel had asked to be buried in Havat Gilad if anything happened to him. We will honor his request and will bury him in the town he loved so much and did so much for.”

Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, Samaria Chief Rabbi, said, “Mr. Prime Minister, come here and look at the eyes of the children, of the family, of our dear Yael.  (Raziel), so much blessing filled you, so much light. And so much darkness filled those sons of darkness who came to extinguish the light. This time, they succeeded in extinguishing a great light.”

Samaria Regional Council Head Yossi Dagan said, “Our dear, holy, beloved brother Rabbi Raziel was a true man of kindness, filled with boundless love. On Hanukkah we stood together, all of us, in the communal house in Havat Gilad, participating in a trivia game you had organized. So much light and happiness flowed from you. You rejoiced with them when they received prizes. You were a man of Torah, and a humble person. As a Magen David Adom volunteer here in Samaria, you saved countless lives. You gave classes, you taught young adults and children.

“You are the one who saved so many lives, but lowlifes came yesterday and stole your great soul. Rabbi Raziel… was murdered because he was a Jew living in Israel. We look you in the eye, and we promise these murderers that the nation of Israel will never be broken. You, the murderers, believe death to be holy; we make life holy. You consecrate evil, and we consecrate the Torah, the Land of Israel, and the nation of Israel. We will be victorious over you…”

At the exact right moment in Jewish history, as promised to our forefather, Avraham in the Covenant Between The Pieces (see Bereishis 15), the Jews were redeemed from Mitzrayim.  A hopeful and inspired nation, they marched out of the shackles of Egyptian slavery, en route to Har Sinai and Eretz Yisrael.  And  yet… Redemption comes at a cost; too often, a steep, painful and heart-wrenching cost. 

From the Nile River of antiquity to our day and our time… redemption is glorious and often times  (too often) painful.  And while the world forgets, the Almighty – and the Children of Israel – never forget. 

May we merit that great day when there will be no more pain, and only glory – וַהֲשִׁבֹתִי אֶת-שְׁבוּת יְהוּדָה, וְאֵת שְׁבוּת יִשְׂרָאֵל; וּבְנִתִים, כְּבָרִאשֹׁנָה – And I will return the captivity of Yehuda and the captivity of Israel, and will build them, as at first (Jer.33:7). 

בברכת חודש טוב, בשורות טובות, ושבת שלום,


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