Every word, every letter in the Torah is used for a specific reason and purpose. We are reminded of this concept often through the teachings of Chazal where they will derive significant meanings from a word missing a letter, which it would customarily have (chaser), or a word having an “extra” letter - one which it normally would not have (maleh). The Gemarah goes even further and teaches us that Hashem told Moshe Rabeinu that not only were nekudos important but that one day, a great man named Rebbi Akiva will learn halachos out of the “crowns” written on top of the letters in the Torah (Menachos 29b). This idea is driven home quite clearly in Parshas Bo.
In this Parsha, we are deep into the maccos brought upon Pharoh for his stubborn refusal to accede to the will of Hashem and release Bnei Yisroel from slavery. The maccos culminate with Maccos B’choros, the killing of the first born. Maccos B’Choros, the final crushing blow on Mitzrayim which finally led to their releasing, their pleading for B’nei Yisroel to leave. Yet, this singular moment is described in no less than three very different ways by the words of the P’sukim.
First, the Pasuk says “M’bchor Pharoh Hayoshev al Kiso, Ad B’chor Hashifcha Asher Achar Harechayim, V’Chal B’chor B’hema” (Shemos 11:5). From Pharoh sitting on his thrown to the B’chor of the maidservant to the animals. Next (12:29), the Pasuk uses the same lashon except it swaps “Ad B’chor Hashvi” (the B’chor of the prisoners) in place of Ad Bchor Hashifcha. Then finally after the macca, the Torah simply says “M’bchor Adam V’ad B’chor B’hema” (13:15). We know that every word was chosen carefully and with purpose. Why does the Torah employ three different descriptions and modifiers to describe the same event?
The first step in trying to understand why different letters or words are used in different places in the Torah is to carefully examine the context in which the words are being used. e.g. who is talking, what is going on in the surrounding psukim etc. If that method does not yield an explanation, then a deeper use of drash or looking at other sources may be in order. Fortunately, in this case, understanding words and letters in the Torah 101, is sufficient.
In the first pasuk which we are examining (11:5), the words are preceded by “Ko Amar Hashem”. This was prior to the macca taking place and was intended as a Hasraha (warning) to Pharaoh. There are numerous proofs that the monarchy in Mitzrayim was not an absolute monarchy – that is, there was no guarantee that the monarchy would be maintained in the family after the death of the Pharaoh. Secular history reaches the same conclusion – that is the death of a Pharaoh often resulted in the installation of a new family to lead the country. (The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press 2000) Indeed, there are numerous places in the Torah where we see references to Pharaoh include the words v’chal avadav (all his servants) (8:20,8:27,9:14,10:7, 12:30 and many more). Why do we care about the avadav? The conclusion is inescapable – Pharaoh needed the support of the nobility and the masses in order to maintain his reign. The Medrash Rabbah on Shemos provides additional support for this idea. The Medrash on Vayakam Melech Chadash explains that Pharaoh was against enslaving B’nei Yisroel, he thought it was improper based on the debt the country owed to Yospeh. He was pressured by his ministers to enslave them because of his ministers’ fear that they were becoming too large and too strong. When Pharaoh resisted, they began stripping his powers away until he finally agreed. With this concept we understand why part of Hashem’s hasraha to Pharaoh would include a reference to the shifchos – Pharaoh cared about the shifchos, he had too because without the support of the masses his monarchy would fall.
Our second reference (12:29) is preceded by the words “Vayehi Bachatzi Halayala”. Here the words ad b’chor hashvi are swapped for the shifchos. This Pasuk is describing the macca as it is taking place and Rashi (12:29, Ad B’chor) explains that the b’chor of the shvuyim were killed so they would not be able to claim that it was the shvuyim’s “gods” who brought this wrath onto Mitzrayim. Finally, in our last reference (13:15) the macca is over and the Torah is describing what occurred. Hasraha is over so there is no need to mention the shifchos, the b’chor of the shvuyim are dead so Rashi’s concern has passed. The only thing the Torah is addressing now is what happened so as to introduce us to the source for the Mitzvah of Peter Rechem. That introduction required none of the other previous modifiers; simply the words from man to animal all first born were killed.
Our precious Torah has layers and layers of meanings, hints and lessons waiting for us to explore and learn from. Whether it is through shnayim mikra v’echad targum or in depth studying of the m’pharshim, we should be curious as to why each letter and word is used in a specific manner in each place. Sometimes we can figure it out, other times it is more difficult, but one cannot help but have a renewed admiration and awe for Hashem’s authorship with each attempt.