Former Shaliach in New York
Throughout Yetziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt), Moshe finds himself at odds with chartumei Mitzrayim (the Egyptian necromancers). The initial confrontation occurs when Aharon’s staff is transformed into a tanin (a serpent) which then swallows the chartumim’s staffs (Shmot 7:10-12). Next, during makat dam and makat tz’fardea, the chartumim attempt to play down the significance of Moshe and Aharon’s mission from HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Finally, during makat kinim, the chartumim are forced to concede that they cannot duplicate HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s miracles:
“And the necromancers did likewise with their enchantments to bring out the lice, but they could not.” (Shmot 8:14)
In essence, Moshe’s dispute with the chartumim is a clash of beliefs: Moshe’s approach – in other words, monotheism and faith in HaKadosh Baruch Hu – versus the chartumim’s idolatry. Yet, this conflict is not just about proving the existence of Divine Providence to the Egyptians. Although Moshe’s activities take place inside Paroh’s palace, they are also geared towards Am Yisrael.
Am Yisrael is enslaved to Egypt – and not just in the physical sense. It is only natural that after 210 years of slavery and debasement (down to the 49 sha’arei tumah – loosely, the 49 levels of impurity), some Egyptian tenets have managed to creep into the recesses of the Jewish souls.
During Yetziat Mitzrayim, Yisrael is released from physical bondage. But Am Yisrael still has a long way to go before achieving cultural liberation from Egyptian contamination and from the 49 sha’arei tumah. On Shvi’i Shel Pesach (the 7th and final day of Pesach), Am Yisrael takes the first step in this direction.
Shadal observes that Am Yisrael is affected by the idolatry which surrounds them. Hence, at first, they have faith in Moshe – instead of HaKadosh Baruch Hu. This proclivity is manifested when Yisrael complain to Moshe as they are being chased by the Egyptians:
“Were there no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt?” (Shmot 14:11)
Note that they blame Moshe! Moshe is the one who brought them to die in the desert; Moshe is the one who took them out of Egypt. However, their belief that Moshe is their savior and not HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s messenger is an idolatrous, Egyptian belief, which resembles the Egyptian deification of Paroh.
Moshe realizes that Am Yisrael is still under Egyptian influence and understands what they are trying to say. Therefore, when responding to their complaint, he stresses:
“Stand firm and see the salvation of Hashem.” (Shmot 14:13)
Not my salvation; Hashem’s salvation.
Yet, a nationwide paradigm shift – especially one of such magnitude – does not happen overnight. Nevertheless, Am Yisrael underwent a dramatic change of thinking over the course of a few hours. After Kriat Yam Suf (the Parting of the Sea), the Torah tells us:
“And the people revered Hashem, and they believed in Hashem and in Moshe, His servant.” (Shmot 14:31)
Of course, their faith in Moshe still exists. But the first part of the statement is the key: “they believed in Hashem”. This is not a trivial step for a nation that was raised and educated in an idolatrous environment. Recognizing HaKadosh Baruch Hu and His Divine Providence constitutes a major development for the generation that left Egypt.
Am Yisrael still has far to go before this belief is truly embedded within them, and throughout their sojourn in the desert, the nation displays a clear tendency to idolize Moshe. (The sin of the egel – the golden calf – is the most prominent example of this trend.) However, the turning point – and the momentous first step – occurs during Kriat Yam Suf on Shvi’i Shel Pesach.