In the non-egalitarian society of the Bible it was evident that the bechor, the first born being the one designated to carry on the legacy of his father had special rights and thus special responsibilities. This situation led to much conflict as families fought over who was the true heir to the parents legacy.
Yet clearly the "first born" was not necessarily determined by order of birth. Thus Yaakov could actually purchase the birthright from his elder brother Eisav and Yaakov could designate the children of Yosef, his eleventh son, a "double portion" in the tribes of Israel. Yet however defined the status of first born carried much significance. The Torah acknowledges the special role of the eldest by grating him a double portion in the inheritance.
"And you shall say unto Pharaoh, thus says the Lord, Israel is my son my first born" (Shemot 4:22). While the Jewish nation is far from the first of nations we are the nation that G-d has chosen to be closest unto Him. The birthright signifies not order of birth but a way of living. The first born, whether human, animal or even plant is to be dedicated for service unto G-d, acknowledging His mastery over the world.
This redefining of the concept of the first born were to be the opening words and final message of Moshe to Pharoah. It was message that would not be easily heard. "And Pharaoh answered who is G-d that is should listen to His voice to send the Jewish people. I know not G-d" (5:2).
"Send my son (the Jewish people) so that he can worship Me and if you refuse I will kill your son your eldest". The death of the Egyptian first born was more than a tragic necessity that would finally induce Pharaoh to let his slaves go. Their deaths were meant to teach the Egyptians the true meaning of being a first born. It is the first born who must set the moral example for all who follow. With the death of the first born the Egyptian empire lay in tatters. While the first nine plagues may have caused untold economic pain and plenty of human misery they did not seem to have any lasting impact on the Egyptian psyche or moral fibre as life seemed to return to normal soon after each plague.
However with the wiping out of the first born the people realized that a fundamental shift is in values would be needed. For the first time we hear the voice of the Egyptian people "there was a great outcry since there was no house where there were no dead" (12:30). The people demanded fundamental changes to their society "the Egyptians were forcible with the people to send them out of the land urgently for they said we are all dead men" (12:33). "Pharaoh send for Moshe and Aharon in the night and he said. Get out from my people" (12:31). Pharaoh like so many despots, clung to power hoping that by ridding himself of the Jewish people thing would return to normal. Yet the people understood that society was teetering on the brink of total collapse. No wonder many Egyptians joined the Jews as they left for the desert.
Interestingly the only references in the Torah to Egypt after the exodus are the oft repeated injunction to treat strangers with great sensitivity as "we were strangers in the land of Egypt", and yearning of the former slaves for life back in Egypt when the going got tough in the desert. With the Egyptians defeated we could look back at our sojourn in Egyptian with a certain sense of nostalgia. Egypt no longer posed a threat and could be remembered as the incubator of the Jewish nation. The multitude of mitzvoth which are zecher lyetziat mitzraim remind us of our eternal debt to gratitude for the lessons learned in Egypt , even if leaned in often difficult circumstances. The command, written three separate times in the Torah, to "borrow" gold and silver from their Egyptian neighbours served as a mechanism of leaving a positive feeling of the Egyptian people with us.
Ultimately the Torah wants to downplay the special privileges of the first born. Throughout the Torah it is the younger brother who outshines his older brother(s). It is Moshe not Aharon who is the one who gives us the Torah. It is the levites who replace the eldest as the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people. Ultimately it not the order of birth that matters but realizing the responsibility that our birth, as part of G-d's first nation, places upon us. Shabbat Shalom!