The Jews in Egypt were enslaved. Their children were being murdered. And … they had to do a lot of work.
… and the people of Israel sighed because of the work, and they cried, and their cry came up to God because of the work. (Ex. 2:23)
Seriously? What is wrong with a people who, when oppressed in their bodies and souls, complain about the least of their problems?
The answer, of course, is that this reaction is all-too-common in oppressed people. When there is no hope, people only nibble at the margins of the real problem: instead of striving for freedom, they accept 99% of their lot, only begging for the smallest respite, for the merest crust of bread.
We were so far down the hole that G-d’s biggest challenge with getting the Jews out of Egypt was not the Egyptians, but the Jews. Miracles are easy for omnipotent G-d. But convincing Jews? That is a much tougher challenge.
Consider that when G-d tells Moshe that he is to lead the Jewish people. Moshe’s first question, as Rabbi Sacks perceptively points out, is to ask: “Who am I?” Even the man who was capable of leading us out of Egypt, receiving the Torah and leading the Jewish people in the wilderness did not have confidence that he could do it. G-d spent days trying to convince Moshe to take on the task, and even then Moshe dug in his heels on the issue of talking to Pharoah. Once someone says “I can’t”, even G-d Almighty is not able to change that person’s mind. And that was Moshe, the very best of us!
So the challenge for G-d was to convince the Jewish people that as long as G-d was with them, they could indeed hope for more than just reducing their workload. And given how difficult it was just to get Moshe to “buy in,” convincing the Jewish people to have hope was the real challenge. G-d can do anything, but His people are victims of our own perceived limitations.
Today we still suffer from precisely the same problem. G-d is clearly with us, as surely as He was with us in Egypt. And yet we nibble at the margins. As individuals and as a people, we consistently aim too low. While we may expect great things from other people, we consistently settle for less from ourselves. We don’t strive for greatness, out of a mistaken impression that G-d craves a non-Jewish sense of humility, that we really are supposed to fit in with the crowd, not make too big of a splash. Somehow, we think that “normal” is a virtue.
And nationally? 44 years ago, G-d not only miraculously made us victorious in the 1967 war, but he also delivered Jerusalem into our hands. What did our bold and fearless leaders do? They promptly give the Temple Mount back into the hands of those who defile it.
We have G-d with us! We can achieve anything! And the Torah shows us that when G-d gives us opportunities, the right response is not to ask, “Who am I?”