On the first day of Passover, Hashem redeemed us with a powerful hand and an outstretched arm from the very heart of darkness and despair. Following a gut-wrenching, tear-soaked period of slavery and affliction, Hashem wreaked vengeance on our oppressors and saved us from their grasp.
On the first day of Passover, Hashem redeemed us with a powerful hand and an outstretched arm from the very heart of darkness and despair. Following a gut-wrenching, tear-soaked period of slavery and affliction, Hashem wreaked vengeance on our oppressors and saved us from their grasp. However, despite the forcefulness of His redemption, it was not yet complete. After a matter of only a few days, the Egyptians reconsidered their decision to release us and rose in a powerful mass to annihilate us.
Enter the second stage of redemption: On the seventh day of Passover, Hashem drew the Egyptians into the frothing gauntlet of the Red Sea and subsequently drowned every last one of them, all in clear view of His beloved Jewish people. Our enemies were utterly wiped out and we were at last free to serve Hashem with all of our strength. Several questions come to mind. Firstly, why did Hashem find it necessary to conduct our redemption in two stages; why couldn't He just have annihilated the Egyptians in Egypt? Secondly, when informing Moses that the Egyptians would pursue the Jewish people, Hashem tells him that only after the miracle at the sea "will the Egyptians know that I am Hashem" (Exodus 14:4). Wasn't it quite clear to them who Hashem was from the infliction of the ten plagues?
To understand the answer to these questions, we must first examine two cryptic statements in the Torah regarding Moses' demands from Pharaoh for the immediate release of the Jewish people. (As a preface to this analysis, remember that throughout the Torah, G-d is referred to by various names, each of which describes a different facet of His interaction with the world.) When Moses first calls for their liberation, he informs Pharaoh, "Thus said Hashem (YHVH - the four-letter name of G-d that we don't pronounce as it is written), the G-d (Elokim) of Israel, 'Send My nation forth so that they may celebrate before Me in the desert'" (ibid. 5:1). To this, Pharaoh basically responds that he has never heard of Hashem (YHVH) and therefore finds no need to send the Jews free. Immediately, Moses again requests the Jews' departure, this time saying, "The G-d (Elokim) of the Hebrews has called to us. Let us now go for a three-day journey in the desert and we shall bring offerings to Hashem, our G-d, lest He strike you dead with the plague or the sword" (ibid. 5:3).
Why does Moses first refer to Hashem by the name YHVH, and the second time around as Elokim? Also, why the second time does Moses reduce the request to a three-day leave and, subsequently, threaten Pharaoh lest that request not be fulfilled? Lastly, why did Moses feel that his second request was more likely to be answered than his first one?
These issues are addressed by the Ramban, a classic 13th century commentator, who tersely states that although Pharaoh was wise enough to recognize the G-d of the Jews (Elokim), he refused to acknowledge Hashem (YHVH). To understand this comment of the Ramban, we must first come to grips with the difference between the two names of G-d - Elokim and YHVH. Our sages tell us that the name YHVH comes from the root word "havayah", which refers to Hashem's eternal and all-inclusive presence, in essence, the concept that Hashem is the only true existence. Elokim, on the other hand, is a reference to the sheer power of G-d.
It is because of this intrinsic difference between the names and aspects of G-d that Pharaoh had such a dichotic view of the Creator. He was willing to recognize the power of the G-d of the Hebrews (Elokim), but he refused to admit that this G-d was the only G-d, the unified source of all existence (YHVH). Pharaoh would never admit to Hashem's all-pervasiveness. For this reason, Pharaoh completely rejected Moses' first demand for freedom, because he could not bear to listen to the concept of an all-inclusive YHVH. Hence, Moses made a second appeal in the name of Elokim, because Pharaoh was willing to recognize that the Jews had their own powerful deity, besides the Egyptian deities, who was capable of inflicting retribution on the Egyptians. The immediate fear of this "temporarily" powerful deity might make it worthwhile for Pharaoh to at least allow the Jews a three-day leave, lest their powerful deity smite the Egyptians. However, since Pharaoh refused to recognize that there is no G-d other than Hashem, he would eventually have to be brought to this recognition by force, which would finally occur at the redemption by the sea.
As the waves crashed angrily down on the heads of the unsuspecting Egyptians, they and the Jews finally recognized Hashem's total control over the entire universe. However, we must explain what made the redemption at the sea such a conclusive display of the unified existence of Hashem more than the ten plagues. For one, despite destroying all of the Egyptians' deities during the plagues, Hashem left the Egyptians one god, Ba'al Tzefon, which they felt trapped the Jews by the border of the sea. As such, they put all their hope in their desperate belief that although the Hebrew deity was powerful, Ba'al Tzefon might be able to overcome it. Secondly, although the Jewish deity had wiped out a sizable Egyptian population, they still figured it was not powerful enough to destroy an entire nation. Both of these last-ditch hopes were crushed at the Red Sea; Ba'al Tzefon was proven powerless, and the entire Egyptian nation was eradicated.
Furthermore, as long as the Egyptians still perceived the Jewish deity as just another god, they could recognize how it could avenge its enemies, as Hashem did in the ten plagues. But they would never willingly acknowledge that the Hebrew G-d controlled their lives and was intimately involved in their personal existence. As such, although the ten plagues were administered uniformly on the Egyptians, the sages tell us that at the Red Sea they were each punished differently, in accordance with their individual degree of cruelty to their Jewish slaves. While some died instantly, sinking like lead, others were tossed about like light-weight bricks or even lighter straw. It was only now that it became clear that there was no G-d besides Hashem, and that He is intimately involved in every individual's existence. As the verse mentioned at the beginning of this article states, through the revelation at the sea "the Egyptians will know that I am Hashem" (ibid. 14:4).
It was this glorious revelation - that there is no power or existence outside of Hashem - that brought the Jewish people to song. In fact, the verse tells us that the revelation of Hashem's omnipotence by the sea was so clear that the entire nation actually pointed at the vision of Hashem's presence and declared unswervingly, "This is my G-d and I will glorify Him" (ibid. 15:2). Although the Jews were brought to a recognition of Hashem's power by the ten plagues, it was only after passing several struggles of faith (following Hashem into the barren desert without any food or water, and turning to Hashem for help when the Egyptians pursued) that they were deserving and ready to acknowledge the total control of Hashem displayed at the sea. From this point on, the Jewish people would realize, as Hashem has demonstrated over the years, that there is no existence, there is truly nothing, but the greatness of Hashem.
So, as we celebrate this festival of Passover, surrounded by the wondrous miracles of Hashem and enlivened by Hashem's great love for us, let us declare, "Who is like You among the gods, Hashem! Who is like You, adorned in holiness" (ibid. 15:11), and look forward to the day when Hashem's presence will be clearly felt, and "Hashem shall reign for all eternity" (ibid. 15:18).
Based on the insights of Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, the late mashgiach (spiritual advisor) of the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Israel.
Cortell, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying at the Yeshiva of
Greater Washington while attending the University of Maryland.