Even before Moses arrived in Egypt, G‑d told him to warn Pharaoh about a plague. Not the plague of blood, which came first, but a warning about the last and harshest plague of them all: the smiting of the Egyptian firstborn.

It seems, then, that all nine previous plagues were actually nine ways to deliver one warning: If Egypt would not permit the Israelites to leave, the firstborn of Egypt would die.

Indeed, read those verses in which G‑d tells Moses to warn Pharaoh about the plague of the firstborn, and you see G‑d is clearly providing His reason for it:

And you shall say to Pharaoh, “So said the Lord, ‘My firstborn son is Israel.’ So I say to you, ‘Send out My son so that he will worship Me, but if you refuse to send him out, behold, I am going to slay your firstborn son.’ ”1

In other words, the Israelities are called G‑d's firstborn, so the consequence of failing to release them would result in Egypt losing its firstborn.

Furthermore, as Rashi and other commentaries explain, just as the Egyptians made G‑d’s firstborn suffer (and killed many of their children), G‑d punished—measure for measure—the Egyptians’ firstborn.

However, when we actually get to the warning before the plague of the firstborn, we find a deeper reason. This was not just about punishing Egyptians—the plagues were intended to destroy the Egyptian gods.

This is especially stressed with the plague of the firstborn, as the verse states:

I will pass through the land of Egypt on this night, and I will smite every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast, and upon all the gods of Egypt will I wreak judgments I, the L‑rd.2

There’s an obvious question here: Over and over, the Torah tells us that there is only one G‑d, ruler of heaven and earth. If the gods of Egypt are fictitious, what need is there to “judge” them or destroy them?

Here is where we need to refer to the wisdom of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (“the Ari”), the esteemed Kabbalist of 16th-century Tzfat, whose deep cosmology swiftly became embedded in Jewish thought almost universally.

Indeed, both Rabbi Chaim ibn Atar, in his classic commentary, Ohr Hachaim, and Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, one of the most esteemed halachic authorities of the 18th century, provide explanations of this issue that assumes knowledge of the teachings of the Ari.

In the Ari’s narrative, the creation of our universe was partially through emanation, partially through catastrophe. Primordial worlds were shattered and divine sparks were scattered and fell, eventually giving life to our reality.

Everything that exists in our world—other than the divine soul hidden deep within humankind—is an artifact of some lost divine spark. But, since the sparks have lost their connection to their origin, as well as the coherence between them, they become entrapped within kelipot (literally, “shells” or “husks”) that distort and pervert their energy into evil and denial of anything divine or meaningful.

The task of humankind is to rescue these divine sparks and reconnect them to their origin. Torah and its mitzvahs provide the means and tools to fulfill this mission. With each mitzvah, we are wrestling another divine spark out of its exile, and finding its true place in the intended order of our universe. With this, the world is perfected to become the ultimate of all worlds.

The Exodus from Egypt was not simply a migration of a tribe. It was the necessary prerequisite to Torah entering our world. Before any mitzvah could have its desired effect, G‑d Himself had to initiate the process of liberation.

The Israelite souls were intrinsically tied to the divine sparks. Rescuing them from there required first rescuing the divine sparks from the dark forces, the kelipot, of Ancient Egypt.

At the time that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, it was the epitome and center of spiritual impurity, both in terms of morality and idolatry. The worship of the time centered around the firstborn, who were a priestly caste. Pharaoh himself was a firstborn and worshipped as a demigod. The first of the constellations, Aries, the lamb, was considered the prime power of the Zodiac.3

The firstborn indeed represented the most stubborn strength. In terms of the Ari’s cosmology, Egypt was a mighty fortress holding those divine sparks in captivity.

The Israelites served as a mirror image. G‑d called them His firstborn, yet they were oppressed as slaves. Their liberation hung upon the liberation of those sparks held tightly in the hands of the Egyptian gods—forces of darkness and concealment of truth—and the exalted firstborn.

To free G‑d’s chosen firstborn, their spiritual counterpart had to first be taken away.4 The first nine plagues did their job to weaken the tight clasp of the kelipot of Egypt, but the smiting of the firstborn was the final, crucial step in achieving that goal. And then, this monstrous force broken, the human soul could begin the task of rescuing and reconnecting the remaining divine sparks.

This explains why the smiting of the firstborn was carried out “not through an angel or a seraph or a messenger,” but through G‑d himself:

The other plagues, being simply a preparation, could be carried out via G‑d’s emissaries—through heavenly forces that had been in place since the six days of creation. But now came time to begin an entirely new order within that creation. The powers of darkness had to be deposed from their tyranny over the universe, so that human beings could begin the work of Torah. Due to this great cosmic shift, all the firstborn—even the very young—would lose the life-energy that until then kept them alive.

Therefore, this could not be given over to a messenger, no matter how holy they were, be they of flesh-and-blood or even an angel.5

The Chassidic masters explain that now, once we have left Egypt and received the Torah on Mount Sinai, our personal, spiritual “exodus from Egypt” involves refining and rectifying the world. Liberating ourselves from the limits and boundaries of the world, but at the same time remaining within the world.6

We no longer need to break the forces of darkness in the way that occurred in Egypt. That has been done for us. Now our job is to find the divine sparks hidden within each person, each object and each event, and let that shine.

In other words, while functioning within this world we must transcend its perceived limitations. Revealing the holiness and goodness concealed within the world. Turning the darkness into light.