by Judah Kerbel
Why was it vital for G-d to ‘personally’ carry out the killing of the firstborns?
In Shemot 12:12, G-d foreshadows the 10th plague with a drumbeat of first-person verbs.
שמות פרק יב פסוק יב
וְעָבַרְתִּי בְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בַּלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה
וְהִכֵּיתִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מֵאָדָם וְעַד בְּהֵמָה
וּבְכָל אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים
I will go through the land of Egypt on this night
I will strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt, whether man or beast;
I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt,
I the LORD (Exodus 12:12).
The midrash that we read at the seder understands G-d as emphasizing not just that He acted personally, but that He acted alone.
ועברתי בארץ מצרים בלילה הזה – אני ולא מלאך.
והכיתי כל בכור בארץ מצרים – אני ולא שרף.
וכל אלהי מצרים אעשה שפטים – אני ולא ?ה?שליח.
“I will go through the Land of Egypt on this night” – I and not an angel.
“I will strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt” – I and not a seraph.
“I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt” – I and not ?the? emissary.
But why would an angel or emissary not be able to perform this task, or even to accompany G-d while He performed it?
The Zohar answers that Egypt was so saturated with impurity that angels would be defiled by entering, even while on a Divine mission. G-d saw His ministers damaged when they entered Sodom to destroy it, and did not will to repeat the experience. So He Himself came, alone, to perform the plague.
I would like to suggest a different answer. To introduce that answer, I need first to raise another question: Why does the Torah associate so many commandments explicitly with the Exodus?
Rashi sometimes comments on such connections “on this condition you were redeemed,” which suggests that freedom does not come for free. The deal is that freedom from Pharaoh is in exchange for servitude to God. But this does not explain what makes these mitzvot special. Isn’t this true of all mitzvot?
Still, in other instances, Rashi quotes Bava Metzia 61b, citing the appropriate piece in the location of each pasuk:
למה לי דכתב רחמנא יציאת מצרים ברבית, יציאת מצרים גבי ציצית, יציאת מצרים במשקלות?
אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא:
אני הוא שהבחנתי במצרים בין טפה של בכור לטפה שאינה של בכור –
אני הוא שעתיד ליפרע ממי שתולה מעותיו בנכרי ומלוה אותם לישראל ברבית, וממי שטומן משקלותיו במלח, וממי שתולה קלא אילן בבגדו ואומר תכלת הוא.
Why is it necessary for the Torah to mention the exodus from Egypt in the context of the the prohibition against interest (see Leviticus 25:37–38), and in the context the mitzvah to wear ritual fringes (see Numbers 15:39–41), and in the context of the prohibition concerning weights (see Leviticus 19:35–36)?
The Holy One, Blessed be He, is telling us:
I, am He Who distinguished in Egypt between the drop of seed that became a firstborn and the drop of seed that did not become a firstborn;
I, the very same, am He Who is destined to exact punishment from one who attributes ownership of his money to a gentile and thereby lends it to a Jew with interest, and Who is destined to exact punishment from one who buries his weights in salt (invisibly changing their weight). and Who is destined to exact punishment from one who hangs ritual fringes dyed with vegetable indigo [kala ilan] dye on his garment and says they are dyed with (the halakhically required) sea-creature indigo.
What discrepancy would there be in determining the first born that requires fine discernment “between drops of seed?” Rashi explains that human beings can know a woman’s firstborn, but if she bore children for multiple men, only G-d can know which were firstborn of their fathers. Similarly, human beings have a limited capacity to see beyond that which meets the eye; we may often trust that which we see and hear, making us susceptible to being cheated. However, G-d reminds us that He, who has the powerful ability to discern, holds us accountable especially when we deceive others. These mitzvot are thus singled out because they are most subject to deception. Maharal of Prague makes a sharper claim: the correlation between these mitzvot and the exodus goes beyond the deterrent, admonishing us that by engaging in such deceit, one denies G-d’s ability to perceive fine distinctions, thereby denying G-d’s essential role in taking us out of Egypt and His ability to do the supernatural. One who recognizes the miraculousness of the exodus, however, will understand that G-d knows when we lie. Furthermore, B’nei Yisrael, in being redeemed supernaturally, merited a higher spiritual level. To engage in deceit, and denying G-d’s ability to account for that, is antithetical to the spiritual level that was intended for B’nei Yisrael in leaving Egypt.
Pesach at its core is about the distinction between right and wrong, justice and oppression, truth and deceit. The Mishnah says that we must begin telling the story of our liberation by making mention of our disgrace, genut, and only then finishing with praise, shevach. We need to make the distinction between genut and shevach because we can only truly appreciate our freedom by understanding the alternative. But we also need to connect this distinction to the fundamental distinction between tov and ra, between right and wrong. Our experience of oppression should teach us that oppressing others is wrong. That is why the Torah says dozens of time that we should not oppress the other because we were once the “other.”
The Yerushalmi (Berakhot 5:2) declares, “if there is no wisdom, how do we make distinctions?” From whom do we learn to make distinctions? Where does our wisdom come from? G-d, Who distinguished between the firstborn and others, Who is able to see the fine line between truth and deception, grants us the wisdom to make these distinctions as well. That is why G-d, and not an angel, executed the last plague. His miraculous distinguishing of the firstborns teaches us to trust His distinctions between right and wrong, justice and oppression, truth and deceit, and He therefore calls upon us to use our freedom to follow mitzvot with integrity and treat others in accordance with these principles.
Judah Kerbel (SBM 2015) is a Beit Midrash Fellow at SAR High School. He holds a master’s degree from the Bernard Revel Graduate School in medieval Jewish history and is scheduled toreceive semikha from RIETS this spring.