There is a conundrum whose origin is in the drama if not horror of the tenth plague meted out to the Egyptians, which we are reminded of again in this week’s portion of Beha’alotcha. It occurs in the context of the distinction between the Levites and the other tribes, as God declares, 8:15
כִּי֩ נְתֻנִ֨ים נְתֻנִ֥ים הֵ֙מָּה֙ לִ֔י מִתּ֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל תַּ֩חַת֩ פִּטְרַ֨ת כל־רֶ֜חֶם בְּכ֥וֹר כֹּל֙ מִבְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לָקַ֥חְתִּי אֹתָ֖ם לִֽי׃
For they are surely given to Me from among the Israelites: I have taken them for Myself in place of all the first issue of the womb, of all the male first-born of the Israelites.
We are reminded that the Levites took the place of the special status given to first borns, following the sin of the Golden Calf, in which they, the first borns participated. The verses continue to provide the historic context for this prestige;
כִּ֣י לִ֤י כל־בְּכוֹר֙ בִּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בָּאָדָ֖ם וּבַבְּהֵמָ֑ה בְּי֗וֹם הַכֹּתִ֤י כל־בְּכוֹר֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם הִקְדַּ֥שְׁתִּי אֹתָ֖ם לִֽי
For every male first-born among the Israelites, human as well as beast, is Mine; I consecrated them to Myself at the time that I smote every [male] first-born in the land of Egypt.
וָאֶקַּ֖ח אֶת־הַלְוִיִּ֑ם תַּ֥חַת כל־בְּכ֖וֹר בִּבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Now (following the sin of the Golden calf) I take the Levites instead of every male first-born of the Israelites.
It appears that the Jewish first borns were redeemed or saved from the tenth plague, and as a result or perhaps the cause of them having this privileged position. The enigma begs attention. Why were they in need of being saved? What was their wrongdoing? Sforno commenting on the passage describing the tenth plague in Shemot (13:15) brings a remarkable if not startling insight, commenting on the phrase;
כל בכור בארץ מצרים, he expounds; “the fact that the Torah does not speak about “every Egyptian firstborn,” but about “every firstborn in Egypt,” shows that basically, the Israelites, i.e. their firstborn were also guilty of death at the hands of God. He saved them by sanctifying them as His personal property.”
The quandary becomes all the greater when we re examine the directives.We were instructed to paint our doorposts in blood, for (Shemot 12:23) so that;
וְעָבַ֣ר יְהֹוָה֮ לִנְגֹּ֣ף אֶת־מִצְרַ֒יִם֒ וְרָאָ֤ה אֶת־הַדָּם֙ עַל־הַמַּשְׁק֔וֹף וְעַ֖ל שְׁתֵּ֣י הַמְּזוּזֹ֑ת וּפָסַ֤ח יְהֹוָה֙ עַל־הַפֶּ֔תַח וְלֹ֤א יִתֵּן֙ הַמַּשְׁחִ֔ית לָבֹ֥א אֶל־בָּתֵּיכֶ֖ם לִנְגֹּֽף׃
God, when going through to smite the Egyptians, will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and God will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.
Why were they too in the line of fire? Perhaps acknowledging this puzzling rescue should have been included in the famous Dayainu melody! The story of the Exodus from Egypt takes an uncanny turn, it seems that we ought to be indebted that our first born were allegedly saved from being killed with the Egyptians as well as being liberated. How are we to understand this disconcerting portrayal of our seeming lack of merit?
Sforno posits that the effect of the absolute power given to first borns also impacted the Jews.The attack against the first-born was therefore a powerful polemic against the entire culture of Egypt. The eldest ruled the younger siblings. This is why having slaves was so important to the Egyptians. This gave the lower classes someone else to control and dominate.
Birth traits cannot become birthrights. For the Egyptians these predetermined were first born, for others, it became racial features, size of nose, color of eyes and skin. This, as we know, leads to tyranny and by design an underclass, an enslaved and abused subdivision of the population. This immoral ideology is what unleashed God’s unrivaled anger. Being a child of God, and born in the image of God transcends lineage. That too is the battle for freedom, that too is the Exodus from Egypt.