Rachael’s Thoughts on Parshat Bo

This week, we finish reading the plagues of Egypt, and we are always stunned by the last plague: the death of the first born.  The magnitude of it, the severity, the immense loss of life always lingers with difficulty in our hearts.  This plague not only changed Egypt forever, it also changed Judaism forever. 

We usually understand the last plague is God passing through Egypt and taking the lives of all the Egyptian first born.  Except, the Torah didn’t exactly say that.  The Torah states that God will pass through Egypt and take the lives of every eldest child in Egypt.  Worded that way, it now includes all the Jewish first born as well.  The fact that the Israelite’s first born shelter in homes that have blood painted on the doorposts means they are protected, it does not mean they are exempted.   

Because Jewish eldest children were not exempted, they now owe every breath they take to God.  They are to live out their lives in the service of God, who owns their futures.  It is the first born who were destined to become those who serve God, the priesthood, what we now know to be the role of the Kohanim.  It would mean that every family gives up their first born to Temple service with no argument or exceptions.  But the Torah says we must redeem them out of that predestined future.  The ceremony is called ‘Pidyon Ha-ben’, the ‘Redemption of the Child’. 

Jewish families redeem their first born out of ritual service on the thirtieth day after the baby is born.  Actually, the Torah commands us to do this –we buy our children out of a lifetime of service to God.  It’s a lesser-known ritual, because the Sages minimized how often we would obligate parents to this service.  Technically, the word is masculine, so only baby boys would be obligated; it says first born, which implies first natural live birth, so all surgeries or previous unsuccessful pregnancies would exempt the baby.  The list goes on as to how infrequently we would actually need to redeem the baby because the goal is to not obligate them in the first place. 

But, wouldn’t we want our children to live in the service of God?  Isn’t that an entrance to holiness?  Shouldn’t we be honoured? 

Yes, we’re honoured with the concept, but we’d rather our children choose their own destinies.  Egypt showed us what it looks like when a person’s free will is taken from them, when their future is not their own, when their voices are ignored.  The Torah rightly reminds us that, technically, God spared our children, so logic dictates they are in perpetual service; but then the Torah immediately tells us how to release them. 

There are many moments in the Egypt experience that help shape Jewish values.  The importance of freedom, the centrality of choice, and the empowerment of destiny.  It is true for us, for our children, and as our Egypt experience teaches us, for all people. 

I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat — our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate. 


Shabbat shalom,