This week’s Torah portion, Bo (Ex. 10:1-13:16), recounts the last three plagues of Egypt, instructions for celebrating the first Passover and the exodus out of Egypt.
The slaying of the firstborn of Egypt is the catalyst that causes Pharaoh, finally, to let the Israelites out of Egypt. The book of Exodus began with Pharaoh ordering the death of the Israelite male children. Now, God carries out the death of the Egyptian firstborn. It is the act that finally gets Pharaoh to let the children of Israel out of Egypt.
As soon as they leave Egypt, though, God commands that the firstborn male of Israel, both human and animal, are to be consecrated to God. Many ancient Near Eastern civilizations recognized a special relationship between their god and the firstborn child, but the last of the plagues and the first commandment the Israelites are given when they leave Egypt is too similar to be coincidence. The Israelites must bear the burden of the plague that broke the intransigence of the Pharaoh, and the hearts of his people. The firstborn males of Israel, ol this day, undergo the ceremony of pidyon ha-ben, redemption of the firstborn, to free them from Temple service, though the Temple itself has not been an entity for almost two thousand years. Erev Passover is still today a fast day for firstborn sons, a sobering recollection that the firstborn sons of Egypt were struck down by God’s hand. Egypt and Pharaoh were our oppressors, but they were still children of the God that we worship, and their deaths should not go unremembered.