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It was at midnight, and Hashem smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon and every firstborn animal. (Shemos 12:29)
In this week’s parsha we learn about the Mitzvah of redeeming the firstborn (Shemos 13:1). The Torah requires us to redeem every firstborn child from a kohen in commemoration of the event that Hashem smote every first born Egyptian at the time of our redemption. In Shulchan Aruch it is recorded that this mitzvah is to be accompanied with the shechiyanu blessing and a lavish festive meal. Generally, a shechiyanu blessing is only recited at joyous occasions.
It is noteworthy that there is another time we commemorate this event. It is an ancient custom that every firstborn fasts Erev Pesach in commemoration of the event that Hashem smote every first born Egyptian and saved every Jewish firstborn. The commentators explain that by fasting we recognize that we were no more deserving to be spared from death than the wicked Egyptian firstborns. It was only due to Hashem’s kindness that the Jewish firstborns were spared. Today it has become widespread custom to shorten the fast by participating in a siyum or by giving charity.
It seems a bit odd that in commemoration of the same event we do two opposite things. On the one hand we enjoy a lavish festive meal at the redemption ceremony but also fast annually. How do we reconcile this contradiction?
Perhaps we may answer this by taking note of a posuk in this week’s parsha. The posuk says that Hashem killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt. The posuk does not stop there, it goes on and gives two examples. The posuk continues “from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon.” Incidentally, the Targum interprets the first part of the posuk to mean the first born of Pharaoh who was destined to inherit the throne and serve as king of Egypt. We may ask why was it necessary for the Torah to give two examples. The Torah already informed us that Hashem smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt.
Perhaps the Torah is trying to allude to two different acts of kindness that Hashem performed for the Jewish people. First, Hashem smote the firstborn of Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s firstborn was the most respected man in the land of Egypt. It was he who was destined to succeed his father as ruler. His death was meant to serve as a point of contrast for the Jewish People. Hashem was showing the Jewish people that they by contrast would be become the most respected nation in the world. Indeed the posuk says “My child, My firstborn Yisroel.”
Second, Hashem also killed the lowly firstborn captives in the dungeons of Egypt. This also was meant to serve as point of contrast for the Jewish people. Hashem reminded the Jewish people that they too were similar to the firstborn captive in the dungeon due to the spiritual descent. Nevertheless, Hashem guaranteed that they would be redeemed. Hashem provided them with the two Mitzvos, the karbon Pesach and circumcision with which they were able to earn merit and their redemption.
We may suggest that the two ways we commemorate the redemption of the firstborn correspond to the two examples the Torah uses with regard the death of the firstborns of Egypt.
The Mitzvah of redeeming the first born and the lavish celebration that accompanies this Mitzvah corresponds specifically to the fact that Hashem smote the firstborn of Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s firstborn was the most respected man in all of Egypt. In contrast to his death, Hashem took the Jewish people out of Egypt and elevated them to the status of His firstborn as the posuk says “My Child the firstborn Yisroel.” This is certainly a reason to celebrate. Thus, the Mitzvah of redemption is accompanied with a lavish meal.
The second type of commemoration is the fast we observe Erev Pesach. This corresponds to the event that Hashem smote the firstborn captive imprisoned in the dungeon. This example reminded the Jewish people that they too were at a low spiritual level and were undeserving of redemption. It was only due to Hashem’s kindness that He provided them the two Mitzvos of Karban Peshach and circumcision that gave them the ability to earn their redemption. In commemoration of this we need to fast.
© Efraim Levine 5760/2000 - 5762/2002