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Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the millstone and all the firstborn of the animal. (Shemos 12:6)
In this week’s parsha we learn about the tenth plague, the slaying of the firstborn. Hashem declared that he would slay every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on this throne to the firstborn of the maidservant. Later in the parsha (12:29), at the actual time of the slaying of the firstborn a similar posuk appears but substitutes the “firstborn of the maidservant” with the “firstborn of the captive in the dungeon.” Rashi in his first interpretation explains that the firstborn of the maidservant and the firstborn of the captives were slain for different reasons. The firstborn of the maidservants were slain because they were citizens of Egypt who mistreated the Jewish people. Although the maidservants were on the bottom rung of the Egyptian social ladder, they did possess a minimal degree of power which they exercised to harm the Jewish people. The firstborn of the captives however, were not citizens and had no power to harm the Jewish people. They were killed because they rejoiced in the suffering of the Jewish people.
In the sefer Birchas Ish, Rav Shain uses this idea to explain a textual difficulty that many of the commentators discuss. On the one hand the Torah tells us that Hashem Himself would slay every firstborn in Egypt and not delegate this task to an angel (11:4). On the other hand the Torah says that Hashem would not allow the angel of destruction to enter the Jewish homes when it slays the firstborn of Egypt (12:23). This posuk indicates that an angel performed the slaying of the firstborn not Hashem. Rav Shain answers that Hashem Himself only killed the citizens of Egypt in punishment for mistreating the Jewish people. This included the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the maidservant. However the firstborn captives who were not citizens and had no power to mistreat the Jewish people but rejoiced in their suffering were killed by an angel. Rashi explains that the Jewish people needed protection from this angel, for once a destructive angel is given permission to kill it does not differentiate between the guilty and the innocent.
Rav Shain continues to note that the Jewish people in Egypt were considered both residents and captives. From the time of Yosef the Jewish people were given the status of Egyptian citizens. Subsequently they were enslaved and treated as captives. On this evening there were two decrees. (1) To slay the firstborn citizens of Egypt. (2) To slay the firstborn of all captives. The former was to be performed by Hashem and the latter by a destructive angel. Every firstborn in Egypt was in either one category or the other, not both. Only the Jewish people found themselves subject to both decrees. They were citizens and captives. Hashem spared the Jewish people from both decrees.
In commemoration of Hashem killing the firstborn of Egypt and sparing the firstborn of the Jewish People the Torah commands us to redeem every firstborn child by giving five coins to a kohen. It is customary to celebrate the redemption ceremony with a lavish feast. Moreover, the custom is to perform the redemption ceremony in the middle of the feast unlike other mitzvos like circumcision. There we first perform the circumcision and then begin the meal. This custom seems to indicate that rejoicing is an integral part of the redemption ceremony. Why is this so?
We may suggest that the joy that accompanies the redemption of the firstborn is in commemoration of the second act of salvation, namely, that Hashem did not allow the angel dispatched to kill the firstborn captives to harm the Jewish people. The firstborn of the captives were not slain because they actually harmed the Jewish people, they were not is a position to do so. Their sin was that they rejoiced in the suffering of the Jewish people. Once the angel was given permission to kill, the Jewish people needed protection for they were also captives. Just as we redeem every firstborn in commemoration of our lives being spared despite the fact that we were citizens we also commemorate the fact the Hashem took note of how our enemies rejoiced in our suffering and punished them. We are the ones who rejoice not our enemies
© Efraim Levine 5760/2000 - 5764/2004