Ten plagues were imposed upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. These plagues imposed physical, economic and psychological pressures to let the Jewish people go. During the first nine plagues Pharaoh was stubborn and resisted these pressures. The 10th plague, the death of the firstborn, mentioned in this week’s parsha, “Bo,” finally brought Pharaoh to his knees. “There shall be a great outcry in the entire land of Egypt such as never before and never again” (11:6). Pharaoh capitulated and granted the Jewish nation its freedom. What was so special about this final plague, the death of the firstborn?
R’ Berel Wein proposed that the plague of the death of the firstborn spoke to the future of Egyptian society. Children are meant to replace and carry on the legacies of their parents and previous generations. Firstborns are usually especially valued as leaders. The Abarbanel tells us that the firstborn in Egypt filled the most important roles in society. We all may wish to live on eternally. However, since this is not physically possible, we at least wish for our legacies to live on in a spiritual, emotional and psychological manner. Our values and traditions can stay alive as long as they are followed by our children and succeeding generations.
The Egyptian leaders were especially mindful of this idea. They were hoping for eternal life. The Pharaohs were typically mummified, buried in glorious tombs or pyramids that were stocked with food and various goods to be used in the eternal world. Many had their wives and servants buried alive with them to service them in the world to come.
By destroying the Egyptian firstborn, their hopes for eternal life and succession by their children were nullified. “There was a great outcry in Egypt for there was not a house that did not experience a death” (12:30). This was too much to bear. Pharaoh bowed to the final and most severe plague and finally relented. He let the Jewish people go.
I once attended a lecture where Rebbetzin Esther Jungries opined that this verse, “there was not a house that did not experience a death,” can be applied in modern times to the painful assimilation and intermarriage rates of today’s Jewish youth. Many families are plagued with children going “off the derech” or marrying out of the faith. A recent Pew Institute survey found that 71% of non-observant Jewish children intermarry out of the faith. Just as the Egyptians were overly concerned that their eternal traditions and values would no longer endure, so too we as Jews need to be concerned that with assimilation and intermarriage rates being so high, our traditions, values and existence as a people are being very much threatened as well.
The Meshech Chochmah explained that there are four expressions of redemption mentioned in the Torah. This corresponds to the four cups of wine we drink at the Pesach Seder. The final expression, “I will take you to me as a nation,” speaks to the fact that the Jewish people survived only because they stayed cohesive as a nation. During their stay in Egypt they kept their distance from the general culture. They kept their own clothing fashion. They spoke their unique language. They kept their unique Jewish names. By preserving their own culture and not assimilating into the greater Egyptian melting pot, the Jewish people remained a unique nation and were worthy to be redeemed.
How do we ensure that our children, grandchildren and the generations after that remain faithful to our traditions? Many suggestions have been made on how best to take measures. We have to invest in Jewish education. We need to set a good example ourselves. We need to approach observance in a loving, kindly manner, making it seem appealing and not a burden. David Hamelech (King David) advised us to “serve God with happiness; come before Him with singing” (Psalm 100:2). After all, observing Judaism that is associated with singing, happiness, spiritual elation and a great social network is much more appealing than observing Judaism that is associated with strict regulations, restrictions and criticism. We cannot compete with a secular culture that values instant gratification when we present a traditional lifestyle as a series of restrictions and limitations.
May Hashem bless our efforts to raise our children so that they find value in continuing with our traditions and culture. May He help us avoid the current 10th plague of assimilation and intermarriage that threatens eternal life for ourselves and our people. Finally, may we all have the strength and wisdom to deal with the modern challenges of living in a secular culture while maintaining our special way of life.
Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist in private practice. He is president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, NJ, and is a member of the International Rabbinical Society. He can be reached at [email protected]