“Love and Death of the First-Born”
By Chaplain Muriel Dance, PhD, ’11
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
I write this D’var Torah to honor the memory of my mother, who died on the 19th of Nissan 55 years ago. She was the first-born (female) in her family. As my mother’s first-born and right hand, I was undone and so was her mother, my maternal grandmother when she died at age 40. The parsha for first day (Shabbat) of Pesach narrates the story of the last plague, the death of all the first-borns in Egypt, except for Pharaoh himself. Pharaoh remained alive to feel the emotional blow of the death of his first born. For Egyptians, who were obsessed with overcoming death, to see all the first-borns die (human and animal) must have been an enormous shock. We have evidence of the depth of the assault in Pharaoh’s radical shift from holding onto the Hebrews to trying to get them to leave as quickly as possible.
Until recently I held that the plagues were dramatic devices to persuade the Hebrews who had endured centuries of slavery that YHVH was more powerful than Pharaoh or any of Pharaoh’s gods. One plague would not have been sufficient to persuade the Hebrews of YHVH’s power. What was needed was the increasing intensity of plagues that they observed over time.
Recently Rabbi Diane Elliot has shared how the phrase, “eser makot” (the ten plagues) rhymes with the “aserot hadibrot” (the ten words, or commandments). However a one-to-one comparison of the ten plagues to the ten commandments does not begin to touch the emotional power and devastation of the death of the first-born. Rabbi Ronnie Serr has suggested that we need to compare the last plague with the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt. You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20: 2-3). The death of Pharaoh’s son pierces his shell of god-like power, and he surrenders and even asks for a blessing for himself.
Rabbi Elliot also suggests looking at these plagues from a Hasidic perspective; each plague is a lever for consciousness about the ways we are enslaved. Pharaoh was certainly enslaved to his supremacy, and his son assured him of a kind of immortality. Do we suffer from a similar enslavement? Do we put our relationship to our children, our first-born, before God? I feel that the love of my children is the strongest love I have ever experienced. Is that love idolatrous? Possibly. One interpretation of the Akedah is that Abraham placed love/knowledge/trust in YHVH over love of his son Isaac and thus passed this horrific test. As a parent I think of this as an impossible test, one I would fail. Because I know the love of children, I can imagine that the death of a child, loved with a parent’s intensity, is an almost unendurable loss. It is the weapon that pierces Pharaoh’s dominance. What does it take to pierce our own internal pharaoh?
According to the Ma’or Eyinaim (Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl), the ten plagues are like the ten tests of Abraham. Abraham succeeds because he knows YHWH in his heart even though the reasoning is beyond him. The Chernobyler Rabbi continues, “the issue of the ten plagues of Egypt is, as is known, that the Creator, Blessed Be He, leads His world through ten minds [sephirot, measures], which are the knowing of the heart” (translation by Rabbi Ronnie Serr). The Chernoblyer Rabbi goes on to say that the Creator picks the measure necessary to the person, the time, the place. In retelling the story of Pharaoh’s surrender to the power of YHVH can we connect our hearts to knowledge (Da-at) of HaShem?
Death, particularly of a child, is beyond humbling. The Hebrews were protected from the Destroyer by following YHWH’s instruction to swab their doorposts with blood. They witnessed Pharaoh reduced; Pharaoh finally held no other gods before YHVH. This witnessing enabled then to gather the courage to leave the familiar however miserable:
The courage to walk out of the pain that is knownInto the pain that cannot be imagined,Mapless, walking into the wilderness, goingBarefoot with a canteen into the desert; (Marge Piercy, 2007, .p.166)