In the past few Torah portions we have been reading of the Jewish People’s Exodus from Egypt. The 10th plague, the smiting of the firstborn, seems to be the final catalyst which precipitates Pharos’ freeing of the slaves. Curiously, just after the firstborn in Egypt are killed the Jewish people are told, “…therefore you shall sanctify the firstborn of the Jewish people.” But why should the killing of Egypt’s first born result in the sanctification of the Jewish people’s first born animals and humans?
Several answers are given to this question by the classical commentaries. The most basic is that the sanctification of the Jewish firstborn is an act of thanks for sparing them. This seems strange though, for to give thanks to God, one should bring a thanksgiving offering, not offer up precisely that which was saved.
I would like to suggest the following answer along more physiological lines. When individuals are together in a life-threatening circumstance in which some people survives and others do not, the survivors often ask themselves why they survived. They were often not more worthy than their neighbor, not smarter, or more careful. What can result from this is not just guilt on the part of the survivors but, especially given the seemingly often random nature of who survives and who does not, a sense of hitchayvut or obligation. A sense that they were saved ‘for a reason’ and thus a feeling of need to make their lives more meaningful, deeper, and perhaps more spiritual than they would have been otherwise.
I think this may be why the Jewish people are not commanded to sanctify their firstborn. Had this act been one of thanksgiving the Jewish people would be required to sanctify the firstborn as a kind of sacrifice. But instead the firstborn are not offered by people but naturally and of necessity rendered in a state of sanctity which, as the Torah states, results directly from the act of the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt.
The Israelite who is saved while their Egyptian neighbor is killed, is, as a result of the seemingly random, non-merit based nature of the universe, propelled to make greater sense of their survival and their life, to sanctify their life and to come closer to the Source of all the grand complexity.
Many years ago I was in an accident which I survived and my friend did not. Later I expressed my sense of survivor guilt to a rabbi I knew. “Why me?” I asked. “I was no more righteous than my friend who died.”
I have never forgotten the rabbi’s response: “We, all the living, feel guilty, for we all are the survivors.” Indeed he was right. The very fact that we are alive should, in this existential sense, propel us to see ourselves as survivors and to make greater meaning of our lives, to become closer to the Divine and to feel in this way, sanctified –obligated in special work, bearing an extra-ordinary sense of obligation. We, the living, are all the survivors and must own up to our sense of sanctity and obligation.