One of the problems we run into in our search to understand the Torah is that our use of language is often quite different than how it is used in God’s Torah. This is not a new problem. But it has gotten worse to the extent that Jews have internalized the languages of other cultures. A good example of this occurs with the last of the Ten Plagues.
When Moshe is first told about the plague of the first born (4:22-23), God gives an explanation for its specifics, something we do not see with any of the other plagues. As Rashbam, Malbim and others note, it is a clear case of poetic justice (middah keneged middah): Egypt prevents God’s first born from serving Him, so God has a claim on Egypt’s first born and kills them.
It seems open and shut. Yet there is a problem here. The problem is that when you actually identify the terms, the comparison doesn’t work. In what way was Israel a first born? The father of the nation who himself bears the name Yisrael was not born first. Hence Rashi explains that the term, first born, can simply be a way of saying, most important. In other words, Israel was the most important of all nations. The problem with this however, is that it seem fairly clear that it was the actual first born of Egypt that were killed, not just their most important countrymen.
The simplest way out of this problem would be to find a challenge to one of the two facts mentioned above. Predictably, there are attempts to do just that. In his comments on Chapter 11, Abarbanel tells us that the first born in Egypt were actually the most important in filling certain roles. Yet the Torah specifically includes the most menial of first born, seemingly making the point that it was the literal first born that we are discussing here. Needless to say, rabbinic tradition is not in line with Abarbanel’s suggestion. At the other horn of the dilemma is Rashi. After writing the comments we have already cited, he points out that Yisrael (Ya’akov) had taken the rights of the firstborn from Esav, and God was now acknowledging the legitimacy of the transaction. As opposed to Abrabanel, however Rashi acknowledges that this should not be understood as the simple reading of the text. He only brings it to show us awareness of the tension that could have been avoided were we able to say such a thing on the peshat level, and not just as drash.
But the problem may not be as serious as it appears. It could be that the reason so many commentators have felt a need to confront it is that they – like us – were used to an overly literal use of language. Keeping this in mind, a solution may be right at hand.
We first need to review, however, what we already know about the first born. It is hard to forget that the question of the first born takes up a central place in the Book of Bereshit and beyond. Over and over, we see the first born being bypassed by more qualified siblings. While the Torah acknowledges and ratifies the advantage that should come to the first born in inheritance rights, it loudly protests the normative assumption that the first born are a society’s or family’s most important members.
Of course, the Torah’s protest did not change the world overnight. Like other nations, it would appear that Egypt gave a special status to the first born. Hence the best way to get Egypt to understand the worth of Israel in God’s eyes was to compare them to a firstborn.
Last week, we wrote about the importance of finding ways to make us understand concepts unfamiliar to us and compared this to translation. This seems to be exactly what God is telling Moshe to do in his eventual conversation with Pharaoh. Moshe is being told to use a word that explains the importance of Yisrael to a culture that would not understand it without some sort of metaphor. The metaphor chosen is the first born.
The Torah’s use of the above metaphor shows how it sees using the same term for two different concepts, when they represent the same thing in two different cultures, as a perfectly legitimate use of language. Once we see this, the dual meaning of first born here becomes rather obvious. However, the only way we will be able to make such ‘obvious’ readings is if we put aside our preconceived notions. Doing so will not only expand our minds, it will also expand our souls.