Terror at Midnight

When Moshe Rabbeinu delivered G‑d’s message concerning the Plague of the Firstborn to Pharaoh, he also told him when the plague would take place at midnight. Nevertheless, lest Pharaoh’s astrologers err and not realize the exact time and then say that Moshe’s promise was not fulfilled Moshe told them the plague would take place: “Around midnight.”1

On the surface, it is difficult to comprehend: Why was it necessary to inform Pharaoh of the time at which the Plague of the Firstborn would begin? Moshe could have said as had been his practice with the other plagues simply that G‑d would bring this plague, without saying when.

The fact that Moshe did mention the time when the Plague of the Firstborn would occur thus indicates that this plague has a unique connection to the hour of midnight so much so that Moshe had to tell Pharaoh when it would take place. (And it was only because of the presence of Pharaoh’s astrologers, Moshe refrained from emphasizing the exact time of the plague.)

The reason for this connection can be explained by highlighting the nature of the Plague of the Firstborn and its differences from the other plagues. This final visitation is distinguished by two factors:

a) In contrast to the earlier plagues, it was necessary for the Jews to mark their doorposts and lintels with the blood of the circumcision and the blood of the Paschal sacrifice.2 This was to prevent the plague from harming the Jews.

b) G‑d ordered the Jews: “No man shall go out of the entrance of his house until the morning.”3 The Jews were required to remain at home throughout the night, for the agent of destruction had been given license to devastate; it would not differentiate between the righteous and the wicked.4 Had the Jews gone out, they too could have been harmed.

The latter point is somewhat problematic. Seemingly, “the agent of destruction was given license to devastate” with regard to the other plagues as well, and yet the Jews did not require any special protection. Why was the Plague of the Firstborn unique in this regard, and why was it necessary for the Jews to both remain at home and make a sign with the blood of the circumcision and the Paschal sacrifice?

When the Agent of Destruction Is Given License

The difference between the Plague of the Firstborn and the other plagues can be explained as follows: With regard to the other plagues, it cannot be truly said that “the agent of destruction was given license to devastate.” Most of the plagues affected only the financial resources of the Egyptians, or their comfort. Moreover, even when a plague such as the plague of wild animals brought death as well as financial loss, unlimited license was not granted to “the agent of destruction.” There was always a constraint to the destruction wrought.

For example, all the earlier plagues involved a specific agent of destruction,5 such as frogs, lice, or the like, and this agent was given permission to harm or kill Egyptians only according to its natural tendency. Thus there was not unlimited destruction.6

With regard to the final plague, however, the Egyptian firstborn were slain without restraint. Since “the agent of destruction was given license to devastate,” it was necessary for the Jews to take steps to protect themselves, lest they also be harmed.

A deeper distinction can be made between the final plague and the nine earlier ones. The intent of the earlier plagues was primarily not to punish the Egyptians, but to generate an awareness of G‑d’s presence, as it is written:7 “So that you can tell… how I performed miraculous signs among them, and you will know that I am G‑d.” Similarly, it is written: “Through this, you will know that I am G‑d,”8 “So that you know that I am G‑d,”9 and “So that you will know that there is none like Me.”10 Therefore there was no need for the plagues to affect the Jews, for the Jews already possessed an awareness of G‑d.11

But the Plague of the Firstborn was different in this regard. In the nine other plagues, few people actually perished; the vast majority could thus still come to an awareness of G‑dliness. With the Plague of the Firstborn, however, the intent was that the firstborn die, and not that their appreciation of G‑d’s power should be enhanced.

Since the intent of this plague was punishment, the attribute of judgment might have argued: “How different are these (the Jews) from these (the Egyptian firstborn)?” For the Jews in Egypt had also sunk to evil conduct,12 as the Midrash states:13 “These are worshipers of idols and these are worshipers of idols.” And so it is possible that “the agent of destruction” the extension of the attribute of judgment would not differentiate between Egyptian and Jew.

Yes, it is written:14 “I will pass through Egypt… I will smite every firstborn…. I will perform acts of judgment…. I am G‑d.” And from this verse, our Sages conclude15 that G‑d Himself was the one who smote the Egyptians, as we say:16 “I and not an angel… I and no other.”

But this does not discount the influence of “the agent of destruction.” That agent was also present, and could make accusations against the Jewish people.17 Therefore it was necessary for the Jews to take protective measures.

These measures involved: a) not going out of their homes. Since the agent of destruction was given license to destroy throughout the land of Egypt, if a Jew went outside, no distinction would be made. With regard to this, everyone Jews and Egyptians were alike. A sign would not help. The only alternative was to stay inside.

b) Placing a sign on their homes. G‑d promised:18 “I will pass over you,” i.e., the agent of destruction was not to be given license in these places, and so a distinction could be made between the Jews and the Egyptians.

Where the Twains Meet

Yet a question remains: Since there was a certain legitimacy in the complaint of the attribute of judgment, why did the sign the Jews placed on their doors protect them?

The resolution of this difficulty depends on the realization that the Plague of the Firstborn had its source in a level of G‑dliness above the limits of the spiritual cosmos (Seder HaHishtalshelus); it was wrought by G‑d in His glory and His essence. Since this level transcends the attribute of judgment, it does not leave any place for accusations. Rational arguments can affect only those levels of Seder HaHishtalshelus that are limited in nature. The levels of G‑dliness that transcend the Seder HaHishtalshelus the levels which were the source for the Plague of the Firstborn are entirely beyond reason, and will not be affected by such “rational” accusations.

This also explains why the Plague of the Firstborn took place at midnight. For the levels of G‑dliness that transcend the limits of Seder HaHishtalshelus are revealed at midnight.

To explain: During the first half of the night, the attribute of gevurah (might) is revealed. This is reflected in the fact that as the night proceeds, the darkness increases. During the second half of the night, the attribute of chesed (kindness) is revealed, as reflected in the fact that as the night continues, signs of light appear and increase.

At midnight, these opposite tendencies are fused. This is possible because the levels of G‑dliness that transcend the limits of Seder HaHishtalshelus are revealed at midnight. For as is well known, the fusion of two opposites is possible only through an influence which is above the limits of both.19

In other words: At the time of the Plague of the Firstborn, G‑d’s essential love for the Jewish people was revealed a love that transcends all reason and logic. And when this love is revealed, even if logic can demand: “How different are these (the Jews) from these (the Egyptian firstborn)?” and “Is not Esav Yaakov’s brother?”20 implying that they are the same, G‑d replies: “I love Yaakov and hate Esav.”21 He loves the Jewish people, for they are His children, as it is written:22 “You are children to G‑d, your L-rd.” And a father’s love for his children is an essential bond which cannot be challenged by logic or complaint.

By telling Pharaoh that the Plague of the Firstborn would take place at midnight, Moshe Rabbeinu was alluding to the fact that there would be a revelation transcending the limits of Seder HaHishtalshelus. Had this concept not been communicated, Pharaoh and his wizards would not have believed that a plague whose intent was to destroy evil would not affect the Jews, for the two people’s level of conduct was similar. Therefore Moshe informed him that a transcendent light would be revealed and that this transcendent light would reveal the Jews’ essential link with G‑d.

Signs of Inner Love

Although the essential bond between G‑d and the Jewish people would be revealed, it was still necessary for the Jews to place signs on their doorposts. This can be explained as follows: All the influence with which G‑d endows us is drawn down to the earthly realm through our Divine service. Even those revelations which transcend the limits of Seder HaHishtalshelus are dependent on such service. Although G‑d’s essential love is by definition perfect at all times, and thus not dependent on our Divine service, our Divine service is still required in order that such love can be revealed and incorporated within this earthly realm.

The Divine service that draws down transcendent love must resemble that love, i.e., it must also transcend reason, going beyond the limits of our conscious powers. This is why the signs which the Jews placed on their homes on the night of the Plague of the Firstborn the blood of the circumcision and the blood of the Paschal sacrifice reflect a connection with G‑d that transcends logic.

To explain: the mitzvah of circumcision reflects such a bond because it is established with a Jewish child at the age of eight days, before he gains control of his intellectual faculties.23 Similarly, the mitzvah of bringing the Paschal offering required mesirus nefesh, self-sacrifice that transcends logic. For sheep were worshipped by the Egyptians. The Jews held the animals for four days to attract the Egyptian’s attention, and when asked, they told the Egyptians that they were going to sacrifice the animals for G‑d. This required actual mesirus nefesh.

By manifesting mesirus nefesh in this manner, the Jews brought about the expression of G‑d’s essential love for the Jewish people, a love which also transcends reason. This love was expressed through the revelations at midnight.

Realizing a Potential

Based on the above, we can reconcile an apparent contradiction in the words of our Sages regarding the merit by which our ancestors were judged worthy of leaving Egypt. In one source, our Sages say24 that “It was in the merit of their faith that our ancestors were redeemed.” The fact that the Jews believed in Moshe’s promise of redemption, as it is written:25 “And the people believed; they accepted [Moshe’s promise] that G‑d had taken notice of His people,” enabled that promise to be realized.

In another source,26 it is explained that the Jews were redeemed in the merit of the blood of the circumcision and the blood of the Paschal sacrifice. This is alluded to in the verse:27 “Through your blood (plural), you will live.”

These sources are not contradictory, for the merits they mention faith, the circumcision, and the Paschal sacrifice share a common factor. All reflect a level of Divine service that transcends logic. In general, faith begins where reason ends. This applies particularly with regard to the faith in the redemption from Egypt. According to the rules of nature, it was impossible for even one slave to leave the country,28 let alone 600,000. And yet the Jews believed in Moshe’s promise.

They were a broken people, crushed by harsh labor and torn by the grief they suffered from Pharaoh’s decree mandating the death of their young sons. For it is a natural tendency for a person to give up everything he has so that his children will be saved. Despite these difficulties, and the power of the Egyptian regime, the Jews believed in Moshe’s promise that G‑d would redeem them from exile.

And this simple faith which transcended reason called forth G‑d’s essential love, which also transcends all limits. According to reason, it might have been impossible to refute the argument of the attribute of judgment: “How are these different from these?”

For G‑d’s essential love for the Jews to cause a change within the context of Seder HaHishtalshelus, and more particularly, in order for it to bring about their actual redemption, it was necessary for the Jews to manifest a similar pattern in their Divine service. They had to show how their essential connection with G‑d is revealed within the context of their conscious powers, and to manifest this in actual deed. This was accomplished through the mitzvos of the Paschal sacrifice and the circumcision, for the Jews thereby expressed in deed a connection to G‑d which transcends reason.

Defining the Moment of Midnight

On the verse,29 “And at midnight, G‑d slew every firstborn in Egypt,” we find two opinions in the Mechilta. One states that it was “the Creator” who divided the night, while the other states that the night was divided by “He who knows His moments and His hours.” The Radbaz30 explains that both expressions refer to G‑d, but highlight different attributes of His Being. The first places the emphasis on G‑d as Creator. Since He brought the night into being, it was possible for Him to halt the revolution of the heavenly sphere, and in this manner divide the night into two halves.

The second opinion maintains that such an unnatural division is unnecessary. Although a human being cannot distinguish the exact moment of midnight, “He who knows His moments and His hours” can. And at that moment, G‑d smote the firstborn.

But what is the underlying distinction between these two opinions? And according to the first opinion, why did G‑d perform the special miracle of dividing the night?

Transcendence Within the Natural Order

The two opinions can be explained as follows: As stated previously, the Plague of the Firstborn stemmed from a level of G‑dliness which transcended Seder HaHishtalshelus.

How was this transcendent revelation expressed on the earthly plane? According to the first opinion, the transcendental nature of this revelation was reflected on the earthly plane as well. Since nature and time are unable to contain such a transcendent light, G‑d halted the revolution of the heavenly sphere, negating the ordinary patterns of time and nature.

According to the second opinion, it was not necessary to nullify nature. Instead, the influence which transcended Seder HaHishtalshelus permeated the patterns of nature in a way which parallels the miracle of Purim. Elevating nature in this manner does more than reveal G‑d’s transcendence. It shows how nature itself can become a vessel for the Divine light which transcends it.

With regard to differences of opinion among our Sages, it is said:31 “These and these are the words of the living G‑d.” Accordingly, it is necessary to say that both descriptions of the revelation at midnight are appropriate. On one hand, the Divine light which transcends Seder HaHishtalshelus was enclothed within the natural order (as reflected by the expression “He who knows His moments and His hours”). Simultaneously, this transcendent influence was overtly revealed (as reflected by the expression “the Creator”).

This unique revelation was made possible because the Plague of the Firstborn was the last of the Ten Plagues, and the beginning of the exodus. The ultimate purpose of the exodus of Egypt was the giving of the Torah, as it is written:32 “When you lead the people out of Egypt, you will serve G‑d on this mountain.” And the intent of the giving of the Torah is the fusion of the G‑dliness which transcends the natural order with the natural order itself. Therefore both sources of influence mentioned above “He who knows His moments and His hours” and “the Creator” were associated with the Plague of the Firstborn, so that the fusion of the spiritual and the physical would be openly revealed.

We also see this pattern with regard to the exodus from Egypt as a whole. On one hand, the country was not nullified entirely; even after the exodus, it remained a nation of influence. Nevertheless, at the time when Egypt was at the height of its power, when not even one slave could escape, 600,000 men plus many women and children marched proudly out.33 This reflects a revelation of G‑dliness which transcends nature, yet occurs within the natural pattern of the world.

To Permeate the Lowest Realms with the Highest Potentials

As mentioned above, the revelations which transcend Seder HaHishtalshelus were drawn down through the circumcision and the Paschal sacrifice. Since the revelation at midnight fused the higher and lower planes in an overt manner, we must say that it was necessary for the Divine service of faith and mesirus nefesh that was expressed through these two mitzvos to follow a similar pattern. These transcendent spiritual potentials were intended to permeate the people’s consciousness, affecting even their lowest potentials.34 This had a parallel effect in the spiritual realm, causing the revelation which transcends Seder HaHishtalshelus to permeate the natural order.

The Divine service associated with the mitzvah of circumcision is, as explained elsewhere,35 intended to establish an eternal, transcendent bond with G‑d in our actual flesh, and more particularly in the organ associated with Yesod, the end of the torso.”36

This same motif was fulfilled in a more encompassing manner by the Divine service associated with the Paschal sacrifice. For the Paschal sacrifice involved a lamb, a material entity outside the human sphere altogether; even further removed than “the end of the torso.” Moreover, the Egyptians worshipped the lamb. This was the entity which the Jews employed as a means of expressing their mesirus nefesh.

This concept also relates to a distinction between the Paschal sacrifice and other sacrificial offerings.37 The entire intent of the Paschal sacrifice is that it be eaten. With regard to all other offerings, by contrast, partaking of the sacrifice is an additional mitzvah.

Eating is one of the activities in which “a human resembles an animal.”38 The purpose of the Paschal sacrifice was to express on this lowly plane a level of faith and mesirus nefesh which transcends reason and logic.

True Freedom

As mentioned on several occasions,39 true freedom requires not only that the soul be free from the restraints generated by the body and the animal soul, but that the body and the animal soul themselves be free. And on a broader scale, freedom implies that one’s environment, even those aspects which conceal G‑dliness, should be affected by the revelation of the soul.

The initial step leading to true freedom of the soul, the body, the animal soul, and one’s environment is the revelation brought about by faith, for faith reveals the soul. This faith is then expressed in the mitzvah of circumcision (which involves the organ associated with “yesod, the end of the torso”) and in the Paschal sacrifice, which involved offering an entity beyond the human sphere, part of our environment. 40

The power to descend and affect inferior levels of existence comes from a very high plane. Accordingly, we can appreciate that the power of the mitzvah of circumcision which reveals G‑dliness within our physical flesh, even within the organ associated with “yesod, the end of the torso” is very great. And the power of the Paschal sacrifice is even greater, for it draws G‑dliness into a realm outside the human sphere.

This facilitates the attainment of true freedom. For as long as one has not taken the “great wealth” 41 of Egypt out of exile by refining one’s environment, one has not entirely left exile, and one’s experience of freedom is lacking.

Thus we find that circumcision served as a preparatory step for the Paschal sacrifice. As the Midrash relates,42 when the Jews wanted to partake of the Paschal sacrifice offered by Moshe, Moshe told them that first they must circumcise themselves. For a preparatory step implies action at a level lower than the objective for which the preparations are made.

Anticipating the Ultimate Exodus

It is written:43 “As in the days of your exodus from Egypt, I will show [you] wonders,” indicating that the future Redemption will follow the pattern of the exodus from Egypt. The exodus from Egypt came about in the merit of the Jews’ faith, and because of the expression of that faith at the lowest levels encompassing the lowest levels within an individual’s personality (circumcision), and even entities entirely outside the human sphere (eating the Paschal sacrifice).

Similarly, the future Redemption will also come in the merit of faith. Despite the overwhelming concealment of G‑dliness in the present exile, it is possible to arouse our people’s simple faith in the coming of Mashiach. For “he is waiting behind our wall”;44 Mashiach is already here, he is merely hiding behind the wall.

The intent is that this faith should not remain merely an encompassing potential, but that it should permeate one’s intellect and emotions. Moreover, it should be transmitted even to one’s lowest potentials (circumcision).

This is accomplished through studying the teachings of Chabad Chassidus45 and comprehending them thoroughly. This draws the power of faith into the intellect, internalizing it, and enabling it to affect all our other potentials, causing a change in one’s emotional characteristics.46

Afterwards, these wellsprings spread, extending into one’s environment (the Paschal sacrifice). And as the wellsprings continue to be dispersed, as promised by Mashiach, we will proceed to the dawning of the Redemption. May it be in the immediate future.

(Adapted from Sichos Acharon Shel Pesach, 5721 and 5722)