We are all familiar with "Let my people go". But Pharaoh's final sticking point wasn't the people. He first insisted that only the men be allowed to go. But after the plague of darkness, he says, "Go ye, serve the LORD; only let your flocks and your herds be stayed; let your little ones also go with you."
Moshe however insists, "Thou as well will also give into our hand sacrifices and burnt-offerings, that we may sacrifice unto the LORD our God.
Our cattle also shall go with us; there shall not a hoof be left behind;
for thereof must we take to serve the LORD our God; and we know not
with what we must serve the LORD, until we come there." (Shemos 10:24-26)
And for the first time, Pharaoh threatens Moshe with death. After the plague of the firstborn, Pharaoh tells Moshe, "Take both your flocks and your herds, as ye have said, and be gone; and bless me also." (Shemos 12:32)
What can be the significance of cattle compared to that of human beings? And yet in the plague of the firstborn, along with all of the human firstborn who are slain, "from the first-born of Pharaoh" down to "the first-born of cattle".
Two of the final devastating set of plagues focus on cattle and it is emphasized that, "The LORD shall make a division between the cattle of Israel and the
cattle of Egypt; and there shall nothing die of all that belongs to
the children of Israel." (Shemos 9:4).
Finally, even as the Jews are leaving Egypt, they are given a command to, "Sanctify unto Me all the first-born, whatsoever openeth the womb among
the children of Israel, both of man and of beast, it is Mine.'" (Shemos 13:2)
Why are mere cattle endowed with so much significance that G-d not only makes a special distinction between the flocks of the Jews and those of Egyptians, and that Pharaoh even especially notes this. "And Pharaoh sent, and, behold, there was not so much as one of the
cattle of the Israelites dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was stubborn,
and he did not let the people go." (Shemos 9:7)
Why kill the firstborn of the cattle and why is one of the first commandments to the Jews regarding the sanctification of the first born of cattle? And why does Pharaoh make the flocks of the Jews into his final sticking point, being willing to let the Jewish people go, but not their animals?
To understand this, let's go back a little further.
The last message that G-d gives Moshe for Pharaoh, before he enters Egypt, is one that we never see him actually deliver. "And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh: Thus saith the LORD: Israel is My son, My first-born.
And I have said unto thee: Let My son go, that he may serve Me; and thou
hast refused to let him go. Behold, I will slay thy son, thy
first-born." (Shemos 4:22-23)
What is the significance of the first born? It's the portion that belongs to G-d as acknowledgement that everything comes from Him. That was the essence of the dispute between Kayin and Hevel, Cain and Abel. Hevel brought G-d "of the firstlings of his flock" while Kayin just brought offerings. (Bereishis 4:4).
Bringing the "firstlings of his flock" was the essence of religion at the time because it worshiped G-d by stating that everything came about because of Him and that human labor was only made productive by G-d.
The first born of human beings were priests who brought the first born of cattle and fruits as offerings to G-d. Israel was G-d's "first born son" that was meant to serve Him. "Israel is the LORD'S hallowed portion, His first-fruits of the increase;
all that devour him shall be held guilty, evil shall come upon them,
saith the LORD." (Jeremiah 2:3)
The flocks mattered because they were the ultimate statement that Israel served G-d. Many people pay lip service to religion. They say things, but don't really mean them. It's what people do with the first products of their labor that show where their priorities are. Possessiveness is corrupting.
Pharaoh wanted to hold on to the Jews badly enough to destroy Egypt. He would rather kill them than let them go. And if he had to let them go, he would at least hold on to their flocks. By sacrificing to G-d, the Jews would be saying that their labor all along had been for G-d, not Pharaoh.
They had never been truly enslaved by Pharaoh. They had only been in Egypt because G-d had decided it. This would retroactively nullify everything that Pharaoh had done to them.
Sacrificing to G-d was the "abomination of Egypt" (Shemos 8:22). It was the opposite of a culture of slavery where the Jews were meant to be toiling for Pharaoh and their Egyptian masters. There was no room for G-d in such an arrangement. Pharaoh was willing to let the Jews go to worship G-d, but to let them take all their flocks would mean a final sundering of his power to over them and his rivalry with G-d.
Pharaoh refused to give over his first born cattle to G-d and acknowledge that Egypt had only survived because of the divine help through Yosef. He refused to allow G-d's first born to serve Him. And in the final extremity he refused to allow their labor to be for G-d, rather than Pharaoh.
The fundamental question of human life is for whom do we toil. Do we toil for institutions and corporations, for pharaohs and governments, to satisfy the desires they create for us, or do we toil for G-d?
That was the fundamental question of the Exodus. It's still the fundamental human question. The flocks were the physical expression of human labor. To have faith, was to believe that they had come about through G-d. To have faith, was therefore to toil for G-d. Every man did not have to be a priest, but every man and woman had to acknowledge that the work of their hands had come from G-d.
This was the abomination of Egypt, unacceptable to a slave culture, where men worked by the will of other men to produce unearned wealth. The question of the Exodus was whether the Jews would serve G-d or Pharaoh. The plagues did not settle the question, neither for Pharaoh or the Jews. It's still the question of human history for all of us, Jewish and non-Jewish. Force alone does not settle the question. It only temporarily clarifies it for tyrants. The final answer must come from the human heart.