Why First-borns Killed?
It has always bothered me why all of the first-borns in Egypt had to suffering in that final, devastating plague. There is no mention in the verses of the common Egyptian being particularly bad to Hebrews so as to deserve such punishment. Furthermore, other Egyptians – like Pharaoh's daughter who rescued Moses – actually did good. It appears that only Pharaoh and his governmental apparatus seemed bent on evil. Could you explain?
The Aish Rabbi Replies
The killing of the first-born stands out from all the other plagues as Divine retribution directed toward Pharaoh and all of Egypt. The Midrash (based on the verse, "Behold, I will slay your son, even your first-born" – Exodus 4:23) teaches that initially when God sought to bring the plagues upon Egypt, He intended to commence with the plague of the first-born. (The other plagues were a reaction to Pharaoh's insolence.)
In order to fully understand this plague we must appreciate the hierarchy within Egyptian civilization. It was a society ruled by primogeniture. The first-born had absolute power within the family unit. Pharaoh was the first-born of the first-born of the first-born. It was from this birthright that he exercised power.
The attack against the first-born was therefore a powerful polemic against the entire culture of Egypt. The eldest ruled the younger siblings. This is why having slaves was so important to the Egyptians. This gave the lower classes someone else to control and dominate.
The Netziv (Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) explains this idea based on the song that was sung after the splitting of the sea: "Then sang Moshe and the people of Israel this song to the Lord, and spoke, saying, I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously... the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea." (15:1, 15:21)
The main part of the song seems to be the idea of "horse and the rider." The Netziv explains that this verse encapsulates the defeat of Egypt: the philosophy of the "horse and the rider." As the rider rides on the subjugated horse, so must the rider listen to the officer, and that officer listen to the general, and that general listen to the commander-in-chief.
According to Netziv, this describes the horrors of the Egyptian society, a series of horse and riders, where the Jewish slaves became the bottom of the proverbial "totem pole" – the lowest horse supporting the entire structure. This is why they were loath to release the slaves, since the entire society would crumble without them.
We now understand why the death of the first-born was so essential to the Exodus, and why the splitting of the sea evoked such a powerful response. The "horse and rider" philosophy had sunk at sea. The death of the first-born was the beginning this final chapter of liberation, where the leading "riders" were to die.
We now understand that the death of the first-born was not just another sign of Divine might. No, this plague struck at the very epicenter of the Egyptian civilization, and paved the way for liberation.
In Judaism, as we have seen numerous times, birth does not guarantee position. A Torah scholar who has tainted lineage takes precedence over a high priest who is ignorant.
The entire book of Genesis, in fact, is a polemic against the older son. Abraham was not a first-born. Isaac was not a first-born. Jacob was not a first-born. Joseph was not a first-born. Even King David was not a first-born. (Midrash Rabba – Bamibar 4:8)
It is only Jacob's willingness to serve God which transformed him into a "first-born." On the other hand, "real" first-borns have lost their status. Originally the Temple service devolved upon the first-born, but when they committed the Sin of the Golden Calf, the Levites were privileged to enter in their stead. (Midrash Rabba – Bamidbar 4:8)
One day the Messiah himself will merit to be called a first-born. He will help teach the world that being a child of God transcends lineage. Indeed, being a first-born of God is about how we lead our lives – the manifestation of the image of God within, not a question of sequence of birth.
(source: Rabbi Ari Kahn)