The culture clash that took place with the arrival of Moshe (Moses) to challenge the court of Pharaoh drove to the heart of sharply conflicting Jewish and Egyptian value systems. This was not a mere political skirmish over the technicalities of improving social conditions via slave emancipation.
The conflict spanned three essential root issues. Firstly, Moshe assumed the existence of what has been called the first unified field theory: a single, original, incorporeal, purposeful Creator. Pharaoh's dialogue recorded in biblical text is built upon the premise that reality is governed by multiple, conflicting forces: "I do not know Hashem" (Exodus 5:2). The many gods and goddesses he worshipped did not include a recognition of any single, original, incorporeal deity.
The second root issue of the conflict was that besides assuming the existence of a Creator, Moshe's premises also included a moral index based on a belief in the Creator's ongoing attention to all creation, particularly the individual moral choices made by every human being. Pharaoh denied this in his statement, "Who is Hashem?" (Exodus 5:2). The meaning of Pharaoh's rebuff was plain: even if this G-d of yours exists, not only does He have no relationship with me, but I have never even met Him.
The third conflict met on the battle ground of Moshe's assertion that the exclusive, universally attentive Creator was the selfsame deity worshipped by the Jewish people who possessed absolute control over all aspects of the creation and could change the laws of nature in general or in specific cases at will. Pharaoh, of course, assumed a different set of premises entirely: "Who is Hashem that I should heed His voice...?" (Exodus 5:2).
The chasm between these two fundamentally opposing worldviews was felt not only in the philosophical sphere, but in the vast differences between the social realities that each of these two worldviews gave rise to in groups governed by their premises throughout history.
Consider ancient Egypt, a land that had been steeped in idolatry. The belief in blind and violent forces ruling the universe determined the conduct of everyone from government bodies to individuals. Society functioned under the weight of an iron-clad faith in determinism. Buffeted by the apathetic whims of unthinking powers, no mere human institution, let alone individual, conceived of itself as empowered or obligated by free choice. Astrological predictions were accepted as fate. To the ancient Egyptians, the human being was fundamentally helpless. He or she hung at the mercy of potent impersonal spiritual presences among whom the Pharaoh was thought to consort.
Concepts like good and evil or responsibility on the part of the individual and the government rang hollow in a world where every event that took place was fated to happen regardless of puny mortal initiative. How could ethical demands such as kindness and justice sound anything more than absurd in such a context? What value could be ascribed to human life in such a bleak equation?
It was within this moral climate the Moshe stepped forth in the name of G-d and demanded emancipation for the beleaguered Hebrew slave race. He asserted the existence of an original Creator ruled by no earlier or greater force who created His world with conscious intent and for a distinct purpose. In the midst of a society mired in a psychological and spiritual prison of astrology and fate, Moshe declared his purpose in the name of that Creator whose very existence establishes an unalienable freedom within every human being. Moshe's premises in his dialogue with Pharaoh asserted that no so-called god or force can ever drown the spark of G-d within man, his free choice that empowers and obligates him to strive for the moral, the correct, and the good despite any adversity.
Moshe's demands also asserted that it is the unity of G-d that establishes human freedom. While those who worship one deity might claim their superiority over those who worship another, the unity of humanity under one G-d demands that no one human being be considered inherently superior and establishes the consequent freedom of all human beings vis-à-vis each other. Free the Jewish slaves, demanded Moshe, since in the world of our one Creator no man has the right to abusively rule over another.
Moshe's clarion call was a shaft to the heart of the entire illustrious Egyptian culture. "Who is Hashem?," responded Pharaoh defensively. How am I to know, his words mocked, show me some proof that this single, great Creator you speak of indeed rules the universe as you claim. How can you possibly convince me, Pharaoh leered, that this entire world is not a result of happenstance, that the laws of nature are not absolute and eternal?
Turns out that with that question Pharaoh got a lot more than he bargained for. Break the laws of nature? No problem! Show you a little proof that G-d is running the show? You got it! So, Pharaoh, you want a little demonstration that the laws of nature are arbitrary and can be changed by G-d at will? The ten plagues, every one of which Moshe warned Pharaoh about in advance, served the purpose to the fullest extent. The plagues struck at every tenet of the Egyptian universe, from the waters of the sacred Egyptian Nile that were transformed into blood during the first plague, to the deaths of every one of the Egyptian firstborn very nearly including Pharaoh himself whom the Egyptians worshipped as one of their deities.
With the arrival of Moshe and the subsequent ten plagues the tenets of Egyptian culture were left shattered and devoid of meaning. To the surviving Egyptians and in the eyes of a watching world Pharaoh's premises had been proven entirely false. When that former slave race, the Jewish people, merited their redemption, the event carried with it the seeds of a much greater redemption at it's core. The triumph of Moshe over Pharaoh began a redemption for all of humanity, the redemption of the fundamental value and liberty of every human life from those beliefs that would repress it.
Adapted from Parasha U'Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak