In Parashat Shemot, Moshe Rabbeinu is born, adopted by the daughter of Par’o, and inaugurated as G-d’s messenger to the Jewish People. Moshe is hesitant to assume this role, and protests, saying, “Mi Anochi Ki Eilech El Par’o VeChi Otzi Et Bnei Yisrael Mei’Eretz Mitzrayim”, “Who am I, that I should go to Par’o, and that I should take Bnei Yisrael out of the Land of Egypt?” (Shemot 3:11) G-d then replies, “Ki Ehyeh Imach VeZeh Lecha Ha’Ot Ki Anochi Shelachticha BeHotziacha Et Ha’Am MiMitzrayim Ta’avdun Et Ha’Elohim Al HaHar HaZeh”, “For I will be with you, and this the sign for you that I sent you: when you take the people out of Egypt, you will worship G-d on this mountain”(3:12), referring to Har Sinai.
Moshe appears to be protesting that he is unqualified to stare down Par’o and lead the Jewish people out of slavery; G-d replies that He will assist Moshe, and as a sign that G-d has sent him, Bnei Yisrael will worship Hashem at Har Sinai. But this sign seems irrelevant, as all of the work of standing up to Par’o and effecting the Exodus was to take place before Bnei Yisrael ever approached Har Sinai. And although the original request made by Moshe was for a three-day religious holiday (Shemot 5:3), which would enable Hashem’s sign to be verified, G-d had already made clear to Moshe that this request would be turned down and that the real goal was total emancipation (Shemot 3:19-20). As such, how is our Pasuk to be understood?
The Midrash Rabbah (Shemot 3:4) renders Moshe’s original question in a different fashion: “Be’Eizeh Zechut Otzi’eim MiMitzrayim”, “With what merit will I take them out of Egypt?”. Moshe is not protesting that he is personally unqualified, but rather that Bnei Yisrael are undeserving, in his eyes, of redemption. The idea that Moshe held this perspective is corroborated by the Midrash elsewhere (Shemot Rabbah 1:30). After Moshe intervened in an altercation between two Jews, the parties told Par’o about Moshe’s earlier killing of an Egyptian overseer who had been brutally whipping a Jew. Moshe had previously been wondering why the Jews, alone among the nations, were completely enslaved; but upon hearing that they had been telling Lashon HaRa, Moshe realized that they deserved servitude, even saying, “Lashon HaRa Yeish Beineihen, Hei’AchYihiyu Re’Uyin LiGe’ulah”, “There is tale-bearing among them; how can they be fit for redemption?”
This had been Moshe’s last exposure to Bnei Yisrael before fleeing Egypt, and so it understandable that he now assumes they had remained set in their wicked ways and would continue in such a fashion. According to the Midrash Rabbah (Shemot 3:4), Hashem replies that Bnei Yisrael merit salvation do to their future righteousness: “Hevei Yodei’a SheBizchut HaTorah SheHein Atidin Likabeil Al Yadecha BaHar HaZeh Heim Yotze’im MiSham”, “Know that by the merit of the Torah which they will receive by your hand, on this mountain, they will leave [Egypt]”. Perhaps Bnei Yisrael are unworthy at the moment, but nonetheless they will be rescued due to their future fidelity to the Torah.
This message is central to the narrative of Yetziat Mitzrayim. Hashem commands Bnei Yisrael (Shemot 13:8), “VeHigadta LeVincha BaYom HaHu Leimor Ba’avur Zeh Asah Hashem Li BeTzeiti MiMitzrayim”, “And you shall tell your child on [the fifteenth of Nissan], saying: Because of this, G-d did [miracles] for me when I left Egypt”. Rashi (ibid. s.v. Ba’avur Zeh) explains that the ‘Zeh’ referenced in the Pasuk is “She’Akayeim Mitzvotav, KiGon Pesach Matzah UMaror HaLalu”, “That I should uphold His commandments, such as these Pesach, Matza, and Maror [at the Seder]”. As we read of the wondrous deeds which G-d performed for our nation, let us remember to uphold our side of the bargain