In this week’s Parashah, Mosheh informs Bnei Yisrael of Makat Bechorot, the plague in which Hashem would kill all Egyptian firstborns, and of the protection that the blood of the Korban Pesach would give Bnei Yisrael against the plague. He states, “VeAvar Hashem Lingof Et Mitzrayim VeRa’ah Et HaDam Al HaMashkof VeAl Shetei HaMezuzot UPhasach Hashem Al HaPetach VeLo Yitein HaMashchit Lavo El Bateichem Lingof,” “Hashem will pass through to smite Egypt, and He will see the blood that is on the lintel and the two doorposts; and Hashem will skip over the entrance and He will not permit the destroyer to enter your homes to smite” (Shemot 12:23). One difficulty often raised concerning this Pasuk deals with the apparent contradiction between the beginning of the Pasuk, which states that Hashem Himself will smite Egypt, and the end, which states that Bnei Yisrael will be protected from the Mashchit (destroyer) that Hashem will send. During the Pesach Seder, we stress that Hashem, not a messenger of his, performed Makat Bechorot. If the Mashchit is not Hashem and Hashem is the one administering the plague, then who is the “destroyer,” what is his function, and what protection do Bnei Yisrael need from him?
Makat Bechorot is a unique plague because it is never referred to simply as “Bechorot,” but always “Makat Bechorot.” Conversely, the Haggadah refers to the other Makot as simply “Dam,” “Tzephardeia,” “Kinim,” et cetera. What is the purpose of Makat Bechorot’s unique name?
Rav Matis Blum, in his Sefer Torah LaDaat, answers both these questions by employing the well-known theory that all of the Egyptians’ punishments were Midah KeNeged Middah (measure for measure) in relation to the Egyptians’ cruel treatment of the Jews. For example, Paroh decreed death by drowning the Jewish males in his decree of “Kol HaBein HaYilod HaYorah Tashlichuhu,” “Every son that will be born – into the river shall you throw him!” (1:22). Therefore, his army died by drowning at Yam Suf as Midah KeNeged Midah.
Using the same principle, Rav Blum delves into another of Paroh’s earlier decrees. Paroh commanded his midwives saying, “Im Bein Hu VaHamiten Oto,” “If he (the Jewish newborn) is a son, you are to kill him” (1:16). The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 1:14) explains that Paroh gave the midwives a sign to distinguish between male and female babies. If the baby is looking down in the womb, it is male; if the baby is looking up in the womb, it is female. This would allow the midwives to kill the baby even before it would exit the womb. Although the midwives resisted this decree and no babies were actually killed, Paroh deserved to be punished for the decree itself, as Hashem counts a Nochri’s bad intentions towards punishment (Yerushalmi Peiah 1:1).
The Midah KeNeged Midah punishment for this decree is found in Makat Bechorot. The Makah itself is a punishment for Paroh’s imprisonment of Bnei Yisrael, who are like Hashem’s sons. Hashem makes this clear when he tells Paroh through Mosheh, “Beni Bechori Yisrael VaOmar Eilecha Shalach Et Beni VaYaavdeini VaTemaein LeShalecho Hineih Anochi Horeig Et Bincha Bechorecha,” “My firstborn son is Yisrael; so I say to you, ‘Send out My son that he may serve me,’ but you have refused to send him out; behold, I shall kill your firstborn son” (4:23). However, one specific aspect of the Makah is a punishment for Paroh’s decree to the midwives. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 17:5) states that during Makat Bechorot, women pregnant with a firstborn died as well. The death of Egyptian boys while still in the womb is a Midah KeNeged Midah punishment for Paroh’s decree of death upon Jewish boys still in the womb.
This view can answer both original questions. The “destroyer” was the Malach who administered the first part of Makat Bechorot, the death of the pregnant women. At this point, the fetuses’ status changed to that of live babies, although they remained in their mothers’ wombs. Hashem, while administering the main part of Makat Bechorot, killed all firstborns as well as all the fetuses. Bnei Yisrael were protected both from Hashem’s main plague and the “destroyer’s” plague. The word “Makat” in the name “Makat Bechorot” hints at the extra part of Makat Bechorot, the death of the pregnant women and their unborn first children.
It is important to note that Paroh was punished twice for his wish to eradicate the Jewish males. Since he separately decreed both death in the womb and death by drowning, his nation’s pregnant women were killed and their babies died in the womb in addition to his army drowning in Yam Suf. Every small action taken by a human being is subject to punishment by Hashem, even if several of these actions are part of a string of actions to reach one goal like Paroh’s actions. Makat Bechorot proves that every action taken by a human being is significant, and as a result, all actions must be carefully examined and reconsidered.