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Jan 3 2014

Torah MOMentary: What Do We Make of the Killing of the Firstborn?

By at 9:46 am
"Lamentations over the Death of the Firstborn of Egypt" by Charles Sprague Pearce

“Lamentations over the Death of the Firstborn of Egypt” by Charles Sprague Pearce

This post is part of our Torah commentary series through the perspective of a new mom. This Shabbat we read Parashat Bo. To read a summary of the portion and learn more, click here.

This week’s Torah portion is Bo. We read about the final plagues, culminating in the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn.

I often like to interpret Torah metaphorically. I love the Hassidic tradition of reading Torah as a sort of psychological analogue for what’s happening inside us all the time. For me, this is a way of connecting to Torah as a story that’s happening continually, rather than an ancient document that may or may not have taken place.

But sometimes there is a story so literal and vivid that to metaphorize it feels like a cop-out. For example, the slaying of the firstborn.

The 10 plagues always felt kind of removed from me–sort of magical and not relatable, like a fairy tale. Now, reading as a new mom, the words “slaying of the firstborn” feel very, very real.

In the middle of the night the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle….There was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead.”

As a new mom, I can hardly bear to think about the magnitude of this loss, even for the cruelest Egyptian parents. And worse, wouldn’t a few of these Egyptian families have been sympathetic to the Israelites, maybe even risking their own lives to help protect them? Yet their firstborn were not spared.

So what are we mothers supposed to do with this story?

Well, Jewish tradition has a few ways of dealing with it.

First, our tradition has a problem with rejoicing in an enemy’s death in general. The book of Proverbs tells us directly, “Don’t rejoice when your enemies fall; don’t be happy when they stumble.”

This is part of why, when we recite the 10 plagues at the Passover seder, for each plague we dip our finger in our glass, taking out a drop of wine. Wine is a symbol of joy, so we symbolically lessen our joy for each plague the Egyptians suffered.

But the most direct response to the slaying of the firstborn comes at the end of this portion. Bo concludes with God giving the Israelites the somewhat odd commandment of redeeming their firstborn sons and animals. (Stick with me, this is some ancient-civilization stuff.) Basically, every firstborn male animal has to be sacrificed to God, and every firstborn son has to be “redeemed,” which means that the father gives five coins to a member of the priestly tribe, in exchange for their son’s freedom.

And the reason for this? “When Pharaoh refused to let us go, the Lord slew every firstborn in the land of Egypt, the firstborn of both man and beast.” In other words, because the Egyptian firstborns died for our freedom, we have an obligation to give our firstborn sons up to the Temple, to be servants of God. The priest accepts these five symbolic coins in place of a lifetime of service.

And although this sounds pretty archaic, Orthodox Jews today still observe this custom of pidyon haben, or redeeming the firstborn son. We are still symbolically paying back the debt of those Egyptian boys’ lives.

*

Even if we had been Orthodox, my husband and I weren’t obligated to do a pidyon haben when Sylvie was born for two reasons: 1) She’s a girl, and 2) She was born by Cesarean (which, interestingly, makes even a firstborn boy exempt because only “natural firstborns” are slated for redemption!).

But I feel like now that I am a mother, I have a different relationship to those Egyptian mothers of long ago. I feel the debt to them for our freedom and our cultural survival. A need to give some offering in gratitude for Sylvie’s life, and in memory of those Egyptian firstborns.

Maybe it’s trying to be more aware of the injustices that exist today, especially those that affect kids, like child trafficking, hunger, and access to education. Maybe it’s trying to be more patient and present with my daughter each day. Or maybe it’s learning from Pharaoh to soften my own heart, before the plagues come.

To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.

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