Parashat Bo- G-d’s Firstborn
The tenth and final plague which G-d brought upon the Egyptians was "Makat Bechorot" – the miraculous plague that killed all the firstborns in Egypt. While all ten plagues brought great harm and devastation to Egypt, this plague was clearly unique, in several ways. Firstly, and most obviously, this was the plague that finally led Pharaoh to not only permit Beneh Yisrael to leave Egypt, but to frantically drive them out of the country. Secondly, in our daily prayers, after the recitation of Shema in Shaharit and Arbit, we praise Hashem for performing miracles, specifying the plague of the firstborn, indicating that there is something special about this particular plague. Moreover, already when G--d spoke to Moshe in Midyan, He told him to confront Pharaoh and proclaim, "Thus says G-d: Israel is My firstborn. I am telling you: Let My child go that he may serve Me. If you refuse to let him go, then I am hereby killing your firstborn" (Shemot 4:22-23). Even before the process started, G-d informed Moshe of the plague of the firstborn, indicating that this was the primary plague that He would bring upon Egypt.
To understand the special significance of this plague, it is worth noting a fascinating comment by the Maharal of Prague (1520-1609) regarding the ten plagues. The Mishna in Pirkeh Abot teaches that G-d created the world with ten pronouncements. In the account of the world’s creation, we find that nine times G-d pronounced that something should be created ("Va’yomer Elokim") and it then came into being. The tenth "pronouncement" is the word "Bereshit" – "In the beginning," which marked the very first, initial step of creation. The Maharal asserts that the ten plagues correspond to the ten pronouncements through which the world was created, in reverse order. This means that the tenth plague, the plague of the firstborn, is associated with the pronouncement of "Bereshit." The ninth plague, the plague of darkness, corresponds to the second pronouncement in the process of creation – "Yehi Or – Let there be light."
Why is the plague of the firstborn connected to the pronouncement of "Bereshit"?
For one thing, the word "Reshit" means "the first," and is thus relevant to the plague which killed the firstborn. But additionally, as Rashi cites in his commentary to the first verse of the Torah, the Sages explained the word "Bereshit" to mean "Bishbil Yisrael She’nikra Reshit" – the world was created for Am Yisrael, who are called "the first." And this was precisely what Pharaoh and Egypt militated against. Egypt saw itself as the "Reshit," the first, the most important nation on earth. They worshipped the sheep, the first sign of the zodiac, expressing their arrogant belief in their superiority, that they were the "Reshit," the "first" and most important of all nations. The Egyptians also worshipped the Nile River, which, as Rashi writes in Parashat Bereshit, is the "Pishon" river, the first of the four major rivers. The Egyptians felt that they were the "first," the most important, and thus above everyone else.
The plague of the firstborn was intended to show the Egyptians that "Beni Bechori Yisrael" – the real "firstborn" are Beneh Yisrael, who follow the beliefs and traditions of Abraham, Yishak and Yaakob. It is for us, for those who follow Hashem’s will, that the world was created. This plague thus affirmed "Bereshit" – that the world was created for Am Yisrael, for G-d’s beloved nation who faithfully adhere to His laws and values. This is why this plague is associated with the pronouncement of "Bereshit," and why this plague is the most important of the ten plagues – because it served to counter the Egyptians’ fundamental mistake, their feeling of inherent superiority which led them to feel entitled to oppress other people.
We are, and always have been, a small nation relative to the world’s population, and not very popular. We have often been, and, to some extent, continue to be, derided and ridiculed for our beliefs and customs. The miracle of Makat Bechorot affirms our belief that "Beni Bechori Yisrael," we are G-d’s beloved firstborn child, and that "Bereshit" – the world was created for the purpose of our devoting ourselves to the study of Torah and fulfillment of Misvot.