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18.01.2018 13:46    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  bo  shemot  sasson  

Divine Justice in the Plague of the First-borns

That the Lord should strike at those who have not sinned was questioned by Abraham:  “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” (Gen. 18:23).  When it comes to the plague of the first-borns, there is reason to question the Lord’s actions doubly.  Firstly, why did He strike at all the first-borns in Egypt, even those who had not enslaved the Israelites?  And why did He also strike at the first-borns among the cattle, as becomes evident from Moses’ words (Ex. 11:4-5):

Moses said, “Thus says the Lord:  Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians, and every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle.”

The Sages addressed the question why the innocent were also stricken, and gave several explanations in Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (Tractate De-Pishah13, Horowitz ed., p. 43, Lauterbach ed., p. 98-99):

…to the first-born of the captive (Ex. 12:29).  But how did the captives sin?   It was only that the captives should not say:  “Our deity brought this visitation upon the Egyptians.  Our deity is strong, for it stood up for itself.  Our deity is strong, for the visitation did not prevail over us.”

Another interpretation:  This is to teach you that the captives used to rejoice over every decree which Pharaoh decreed against Israel.  For it is said, “He that is glad at calamity shall not be unpunished” (Prov. 17:5)…And not the captives alone acted thus but also the Egyptian manservants and maidservants, for it is said:  “even the first-born of the maidservant” (Ex. 11:5).

And all the first-born of the cattle.  But how did the cattle sin?  It was only that the Egyptians should not say: “Our own deity has brought this visitation upon us.  Our deity is strong, for it stood up for itself.  Our deity is strong, for this visitation did not prevail over it.”

The first answer implies that the first-born of the captives were killed because, had they been spared, the captives might think their deities were the ones who struck at the first-borns of Egypt and that they had protected them.  The second answer explains that the first-born captives rejoiced over the enslavement of the Israelites and therefore were punished.

As for the first-born of the cattle, the answer here is almost identical to the first explanation regarding first-born captives, but its implications are different.  The visitation upon the first-born of the cattle, whom the Egyptians worshipped, was to make it clear to the Egyptians that it was not their own deities causing the plague, rather the Lord, the G-d of Israel.

All three explanations in the Mekhilta aim at justifying the Lord striking at all the first-borns in Egypt.  According to the second response, regarding the first-borns of the captives, all were punished because they all had sinned.  But according to the other two explanations, it was not a matter of having sinned but rather of apprehension about what they might think.

In the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, alongside similar explanations to those in the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, is an explanation based on a different reading of the scriptural verses.  We quote (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, Epstein-Melamed ed., ch. 12:29, p. 28):

To the first-born of the captive (Ex. 12:29)—from this we learn that they took them captive.  To the first-born of the maidservant (Ex. 11:5)—from this we learn that the Egyptians conquered them and enslaved them.  Who is behind the millstone (Ex. 11:5)—we learn that they made them do hard labor.

According to this reading, the word “first-born” refers to the first-born of the Egyptians, but the words “captive,” “maidservant,” and “behind the millstone” are understood as referring to the Israelites.  Thus the Egyptians were punished for enslaving the Israelites by taking them captive and putting them to hard labor, such as behind the millstone.  This reading, too, omits any argument pertaining to injustice because we are not dealing with innocent people but with the first-borns of Egypt who enslaved the Israelites.[1]

The issue of the Lord’s justice comes up a second time with respect to marking the homes of the Israelites with blood.  If the first-borns were going to be killed by the Lord, why did the Israelites have to mark their homes with blood?  Why be apprehensive that the Lord might harm the first-borns of the Israelites—after all, they had not sinned?  According to a homily in Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, it was not the Lord who smote the first-borns (Tractate De-Pishah 11, Horowitz ed., p. 38; Lauterbach ed., p. 85):

None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning (Ex. 12:22).  This tells us the angel, once permission to harm is given him, does not discriminate between the righteous and the wicked.[2]

This homily portrays a situation in which the destroying angel, an emissary of the Lord, destroys indiscriminately.  The angel also endangers those who do not deserve to die, and therefore even the righteous must beware of it.  The one who brings destruction and strikes the first-borns of Egypt is mentioned in the Torah, but the phrasing of the text is ambiguous as to whether it is the Lord or the mashkhit (“Destroyer”) who strikes the first-borns (Ex. 12:12-13):

For that night I will go through the land of Egypt and strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt, I the Lord.  And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you:  when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that there will be no plague on you, to destroy you [le-mashkhit] when I strike the land of Egypt.

To solve the question of how it could be that the Lord does not know to distinguish between the first-borns of the Egyptians and the first-borns of the Israelites, the Mekhilta attributes the act only to the angel, the Destroyer.[3] Exodus Rabbah, however, presents another homily that attributes the plague to the Destroyer but also gives the Lord a role (Exodus Rabbah 18.7):

What comes before?  And the Lord will pass over the door (Ex. 12:23)…G-d, as it were, stood at the door at that hour…This is the usual practice.  Just as a butcher leads his sheep into [the pen] and marks with red paint those which he intends to slaughter so as to distinguish them from those he wishes to keep alive, so does it say, “He will see the blood on the lintel” (loc. cit.).  He stood at the door, as it were, and thrust away the Destroyer that he should not smite Israel.

In this homily the Lord is portrayed not as potentially harming the Israelite first-borns, rather as protecting them.  The Destroyer goes out to destroy the first-borns, but since he does not know how to distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, the blood, representing the Lord, protects Israel from him.  This interpretation rests on the command Moses conveys to the people:  “The Lord will protect [pasah] the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home” (Ex. 12:23).  It is the Destroyer who smites, while the Lord prevents him from touching the Israelite first-borns.[4]

Translated by Rachel Rowen


 
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