Why is the killing of the firstborn the final, and most significant, plague? True, it brought death into every household, rattling Egypt at its foundations, but certainly the plagues of hail — really, fire in blocks of ice falling from the sky — or total, crippling darkness for three days and nights were not inconsequential demonstrations of God’s power. Any of these plagues could have dealt a knockout punch to the most cold-hearted of dictators. What, then, is it about the killing of the firstborn that proved most effective?
I suggest that it is because it destroyed a certain institution of ancient culture that God found objectionable — primogeniture, the primacy and veneration of the firstborn. Turning to the earliest pages of Genesis, we find the theme of the firstborn early in the Torah, when sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel is translated into the rejection and acceptance of their respective sacrifices to God: The hypocritical gift of the firstborn Cain is rejected, while the more sincere offering of the younger Abel is accepted.
Part of Cain’s vexation is due to the fact that he sees his firstborn status as having been overlooked — and indeed it was, since sincerity of devotion is ultimately more important than order of birth.
Thus, Abraham’s eldest son, Ishmael, must step aside for the younger Isaac because the former is a metzahek — a scorner and an adulterer — which renders him unfit for the birthright. Of Isaac’s two sons, Esau must give way to Jacob, since the former scorned the birthright, first by selling it for a mess of pottage and then by taking Hittite wives.
With the birth of the Jewish people in the Book of Exodus, a revolutionary concept emerges: The prevailing rule of the firstborn rapidly comes to an end.
From the moment it began its ascent in the world, Judaism’s message has been that an individual’s merits are more important than an individual’s genealogy.
Many generations later, the rabbinic sages emerged as the leaders of the Jewish people. These scholars taught — and demonstrated — the principle of meritocracy: One becomes a leader through study and devotion, not as a result of yichus (ancestry). A prime example of this can be found in the teaching from the Mishnah, “a mamzer [person born of adultery or incest] who is a Torah scholar takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest.”
This revolutionary message is one of Judaism’s great lessons for humanity. This concept should empower all people to throw off their shackles of
genealogy and birth order.
Ultimately, only those who dream the impossible will ever achieve the incredible.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.