The Bible Says What? ‘The firstborn of Egypt must die’

The Bible Says What? ‘The firstborn of Egypt must die’

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild looks at a controversial passage of the Torah ahead of Pesach

Jews escape from slavery in Egypt
Jews escape from slavery in Egypt

The Bible tells of 10 plagues that struck Egypt in the battle between God and Pharaoh, culminating with: “God smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt from the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the captive in the dungeon and all the firstborn of cattle….there was a great cry in Egypt for there was not a house where there was not one dead.”

The Egyptians hurried the Israelites away, giving them all they asked for – jewellery, animals, clothing, gold, because “we are all dead”.

One can only imagine the grief, terror and anguish of the Egyptians on that night, our “leil shimurim – night of vigil”, now seder night.

As we celebrate our liberation, we also observe the anniversary of these deaths, and on the seventh day of Pesach we recall the deaths of the Egyptian soldiers, drowned as the waters closed over them as they pursued the escaping Israelites.

The Bible tells the stories unflinchingly, recording the screams of the people facing their dead at midnight, the fear and distress of the soldiers caught on the seabed as the waters roll back. It tells of the real human cost of our freedom.

And Jewish tradition picks up this theme, so our observance of Pesach not only tells the story of the Israelites gaining freedom but also the story of grief and fear experienced by those cast as our enemies.

The book of Proverbs tells us “when your enemy falls, do not rejoice”, and rabbinic tradition reminds us to lessen any joy gained at the expense of others.

So we recite only half-hallel for the last six days of Pesach, we take out drops of wine at our seder while recounting the plagues, and  remind ourselves that freedom comes at a cost we must never forget.

  • Sylvia Rothschild has been a community rabbi in south London for 30 years
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