Pesah- Reward for a Kiddush Hashem
In the Haggadah, we emphasize the point that the plague of the firstborn was wrought by G-d Himself, and not by an angel or other agent. We cite the verse in Sefer Shemot (12:12), "Ve’abarti Be’retz Misrayim Ba’layla Ha’zeh" ("I shall pass through the land of Egypt on this night") and explain that G-d Himself passed through Egypt to kill the firstborn, rather than sending a "Malach," "Saraf" or "Shali’ach" – various forms of messengers.
The question arises, what is the significance of this point? Why is it important to note that G-d killed the firstborn directly, without sending an agent to perform this task?
Rav Levi Yishak of Berditchev (1740-1809) explained that G-d killed the firstborn directly as a sort of "reward." Even when somebody deserves punishment for his wrongdoing, there is a certain element of honor in having G-d come to him directly to bring this punishment upon him, rather than G-d sending an agent. And thus although the firstborn certainly deserved to be killed, nevertheless, as wicked as they were, they were also deserving of some small amount of reward, and this reward came in the form of G-d’s coming to them directly to deliver the punishment.
Why were the firstborn deserving of reward?
Rav Levi Yishak noted the Midrash (cited in Tosafot, Shabbat 87b) which tells that after Moshe warned Egypt about the impending plague, the firstborns approached their parents and Pharaoh to demand the release of Beneh Yisrael. Fearing for their lives, and realizing the Moshe had never yet been wrong when he predicted calamity, the firstborns insisted that Pharaoh heed Moshe’s demand and allow Beneh Yisrael to leave. When Pharaoh refused, the firstborns took up arms and launched a civil war, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Egyptians.
What is perhaps most significant about this event is the fact that the firstborns were the priests of Egypt. The Egyptians worshipped the constellation of Aries, which is the first of all the other constellations. As Aries was the "firstborn," so-to-speak, the firstborn Egyptians were appointed as the priests. It was thus remarkable that specifically this group rose up against Pharaoh. Specifically the religious figures were the ones who believed in Moshe and demanded that his word should be obeyed. This civil war, then, marked a very significant Kiddush Hashem, in that the pagan priests of Egypt demanded the kingdom’s surrender to Moshe and to the G-d of Israel.
Of course, this did not qualify as complete Teshuva. The firstborn acted to protect themselves, and they did not take the appropriate step of outright renouncing their religious beliefs. Nevertheless, they were the conduits of a significant and meaningful Kiddush Hashem, and G-d rewards even the wickedest sinners for the good that they do. He therefore rewarded the firstborns by punishing them directly, and not through an agent.
Two lessons emerge from Rav Levi Yishak’s insight. Firstly, we are reminded of just how precious each and every Misva is, and how no good deed goes unrewarded. Even though we make mistakes and occasionally fail, every good deed we perform and every bit of goodness that we spread is inestimably precious, and will be rewarded in full.
Secondly, we are taught of the great value of being conduits of Kiddush Hashem. Being aware of this precept can help us endure even the most difficult and harshest crises. When a righteous person faces adversity, he sees it as an opportunity for Kiddush Hashem. If he responds calmly, and loudly affirms G-d’s justice despite the hardship he endures, he inspires people and brings glory to G-d. If even the pagan priests of Egypt were rewarded for the Kiddush Hashem they created, then certainly we can all earn reward for creating our own Kiddush Hashem by accepting hardship and recognizing G-d’s kindness in our lives even when it is not apparent. Once we realize the unparalleled importance of Kiddush Hashem, of bringing honor and glory to the Almighty, we will respond to all situations in life with composure and faith, seizing the opportunity to create a Kiddush Hashem.